Hak Pak Sak

Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Archive for the ‘Internet’ Category

Friendship and Borders: Facebook, Turkish Etymology, a Virtual Kurdistan, and a Moment of Remembrance

Posted by Stephen Lewis on May 28, 2008

Facebook, the Banality of Friendship, and the Wisdom of Turkish Etymology

Late last year I opened a facebook account. In part, I was compelled to. Several work-related acquaintances in the US and UK had told me that they were so overwhelmed by regular email that they were restricting their correspondence to those listed as “friends” on their facebook accounts. I was also curious. Having devoted much time these last years to researching the origins and consequences of 19th- and 20th-century national identities, I am intrigued by mechanisms claiming to offer individuals possibilities to shape their own identities and allegiances at will and to transcend the simple congruent assemblages of geographic borders, officially-sanctioned languages and religions, and artificially contrived histories and heritages that are at the core of most if not all national identities.

For a time, I gave facebook a chance. I let it troll my address book and I began to collect a community of facebook ‘friends’ of my own. My list of ‘friends’ soon grew to contain several dozen names. Most of my facebook “friends,” however, turned out to be little more than acquaintances, acquaintances of acquaintances, or people with whom I had had one-off conversations at meetings or conferences. Others were unfortunates who either had mistaken me for someone else or imagined me to have far more influence or connections than I will ever amass. Few were what I would call friends and only a few more were people with whom I would care to be friends. Friendship as defined by facebook was not what I would call friendship. It appeared to conflate every from of acquaintanceship, no matter how slight, and to ascribe value to relationships in terms of their numbers and not than their substance.

I then set out to purge my list and separate facebook “friends” from real friends. In search of a filter, I turned to Turkish, a language in which I can do little more that travel and shop and exchange basic pleasantries and in which have a vocabulary of only a hundred or so words, many of them archaic survivals of Ottoman Turkish still embedded in Balkan Slavic languages, as in colloquial Bulgarian, a language that I do speak quite well.

Turkish has two words for friend. One, dost, is Persian in origin; the other, arkadas, has Turkish roots. Dost, according to Hanneke van der Heyden, a translator from Turkish to Dutch of writers including Nobel Prıze winner Orhan Pamuk, implies sentiment and emotional connection. The more commonly used arkadaş, which can refer to colleagues and co-workers as well as friends, invokes inter-reliance, trust, risk-taking, and self-sacrifice. Ottomanıst and archıtectural historıan Machıel Kıel points out that arkadaş is comprised of two shorter root words and can be literally translated as “companion of the back.” Kiel surmises that the word is of martial origin, referring to fighting back-to-back against foes and relying on one another to guard each other’s vulnerabilities, not unlike the hackneyed phrase “watch my back” used by police officers under fire in American crime cinema and “police procedurals.”

Thus, with two Turkish words as criteria, I eliminated from my facebook list all those with whom I did not share or admire sentiments or passions or for whom I would not put myself on the line to defend or trust to do the same for me. The number of names on my list plummeted from scores to an even half dozen.

(A correlate phenomenon: A glance at my facebook home page shows me that those on my list whose passions and work and relationships are conducted face to face, who produce rather than watch and who see the internet as a tool or conduit rather than an end in itself show far less activity on facebook.)

Linked-In, Geopolitical Boundaries, and a Virtual Kurdistan

Linked In is even more puzzling to me than facebook is. I regularly receive requests — mostly from contacts and ex-colleagues in the Netherlands and occasionally from hustling would-be entrepreneurs in the Balkans — to “link” to me on Linked In, but why and what for I’ve yet to figure out. A bit of clicking around on Linked-In suggests that like facebook-ers in search of friends, Linked In-ers thrive on numbers, confusing numbers of contacts for qualitative measures of worth or self worth. Some of my more active Linked In connections have hundreds of contacts but, absurdly, those with the largest collections keep their lists confidential, closed to the prying eyes and linking obsessions of others.

This said, a look at the Linded-In contact list of one ex-coleague led me to the name of another, a veteran telecommunications consultant who had set up fixed-line and mobile systems throughout the world, quite often under harsh physical conditions and even harsher regimes. Back in the late 1990s he told me that he had been approached sometime before by Kurdish “separatists” dedicated to carving an independent Kurdistan out of contiguous regions of present-day Iraq, Iran, and Turkey asking him to conceive a pan-national mobile phone network that would be a first step toward creating out of infrastructure what had been denied them in terms of internationally recognized physical boundaries and political self-rule, i.e. a functional actualization of Kurdish identity.

I have no idea what happened to this project or even whether it was feasible technically but, coincidentally, it fits within the concerns of my present work in the study of the history of national identity and of current issues in telecommunications and the internet. Projects and visions based on overlapping patterns of allegiance and infrastructure are potential alternatives to the limitations and divisiveness of outmoded models of ethnically and geographically defined national states with arbitrary physical and cultural boundaries.

The Meaningfulness of Friendship and the Transcendance of Worlds: A Moment of Remembrance

Consideration of issues of friendship and boundaries leads me to reflect on a remarkable woman whose life was a study in friendship and community and in uniting and transcending seemingly disparate worlds and peoples.

This coming Saturday at the Meeting House of the Society of Friends on East Fifteenth Street in Manhattan a memorial service will be held for Rachel M. Yoder. Rachel was born almost 72 years ago into the Amish and Mennonite world of rural Maryland. She came to New York in the mid-1960s with her husband Monroe. Together, they built a family and helped build a church — Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church in Harlem — that ignored divisions of race and class. Rachel’s home and heart were open to blacks, whites, hispanics and all others, rich and poor, educated and not, Christians and non-Christians (this writer among them), whether in times of joy, sorrow, or need. By transcending the superficial distinctions that divide most people, Rachel enabled others to transcend themselves. Rachel had a soft voice, a youthful laugh, and compassion, understanding, and a warm smile for all. She lives on in the hearts and thoughts of all those whose lives and souls she touched and united.

Posted in Commentary, Identity, Infrastructure, Internet, Media | 1 Comment »

Some Links: Bill Moyers and Rev. Wright, Bob Herbert on the Clintons, Full-Time Writers and the Free Distribution of Ideas, a Greek Filmmaker, and the Internets Celebrities, Checking Cashing, and a Debt-Based Economy

Posted by Stephen Lewis on May 25, 2008

Beyond Hysteria — Moyers and Wright

To go beyond the hysteria of American news reporting and presidential campaign rhetoric watch or read Bill Moyers‘s long and calm interview with a soft-spoken and candid Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Moyers’s follow-up reflections on his audience’s reactions to the program. The interview broadcast, by the way, contains a recording of the entirety of Wright’s now-infamous “God damn America” sermon. Listen to it. While the over-publicized, out-of-context YouTube clip of Wright shouting “God damn America” gave grist to journalists and license to the mealy-mouthed to show moral indignation, the full sermon, with its passion, historical insights, and unassailable morality will have many of us — Christians and non-Christians both — up on our feet and shouting “Amen.” For a sample from another of America’s best journalists, click here for Bob Herbert on Hillary’s cynical playing of the race card and the unwillingness or inability of both Bill and Hillary to exit the stage gracefully. (For Jim Kunstler on Hillary in DC and NY see Monster of Ambition.)

In Defense of Writers, Books, and Publishing

For uncommon wisdom on the downsides of the so-called free distribution of ideas over the internet and the upsides and economics of full-time writing, full-size books, and the essential aspects of editing and publishing read this post by writer Steven Poole. The paradox: Only the rich and the subsidized have the resources to devote a life to full-time writing; the rest of us must be able to make a living from what we do. In a follow-up post, Poole continues to make a compelling case for the superiority of ideas as developed and presented in book-length rather than blog-form. He closes with the chilling thought that books may prove to have been a mere half-millenium-long, archaic-technology-linked abberation in the history of communication.

In Greek

Video-maker Lucia Rikaki has brought her visual style to blogging on these two sites: Lucia and Alwaysthesea. Her still photography is kinetic and cinema-like and creates an aesthtic caleidoscope across postings. Knowledge of Greek is not required.

The Internets Celebrities Take On the US “Fed” and Teach the Poor How to Put Their Shoulders to the Wheel

Internets Celebrities Dallas Penn and Rafi Kam recently announced their new video Checkmate, a cinematic step into the netherworld of Brooklyn’s check-cashing stores and a plea to the poor to help America out of its economic doldrums by “keeping your income low and your debt high.” Checkmate is a kind of Das Kapital follow-up to the Internet Celebrities’s classic Manifesto, Bronx Bodega, a Marx Brothers meets Karl Marx meets Hip Hop take on the feeding and exploitation of the poor. For a bit of Marx Brothers meet Freud meets Walter Benjamin meets Walter Winchell meets Hip Hop see Sidewalk Pimping which I remember most for its powerful existential pronouncement that all is okay providing “… it gets you out of your momma’s basement.” For Freud meets Social Realism meets Havelock Ellis see the Internets Celebrities’s director Casimir Nozkowski‘s own Every 7 Seconds. (Note: If Bronx Bodega and Every 7 Seconds prove too slow to download via YouTube they can be viewed in QuickTime format on Nozkowski’s homepage.)

A closing thought, a zoomed-out memory of V. Popov

A zoom-out in Checkmate shows Dallas Penn to be attired in watch-cap, winter jacket, and … shorts! The only other year-round shorts wearer I’ve ever known was Bulgaria’s former international chess correspondent — and inimitably skilled preparer of homemade gourmet-class salt-cured Black Sea bonita tuna (palamud) — the late Vladilen (short for Vladimir Illych Lenin) Popov. Vladilen covered chess championship matches with his characteristic long hair combed to near-shoulder-length and attired in suit jacket, shirt and tie, and … shorts! It was a stock joke amongst Eastern European news cameramen recording Vladilen’s on-camera commentaries to momentarily zoom-out to include glimpses of his bare legs. Rest in peace, Vladilen.

Posted in Cities, Commentary, Internet, Media, Politics, Work | 3 Comments »

Infrastructural Links: Linux Journal, R.Crumb, NPR, Insightful Weblogs, and Good Old-Fashioned NYC Rage

Posted by Stephen Lewis on April 27, 2008

Thanks again to Doc Searls for his kind mention of me in his recent piece on infrastructure in Linux Journal. Doc and I are now working together on a number of think-tank and private sector consultancy related projects concerning the concept and history of infrastructure and the place, future, and issues surrounding internet and telecommunications as the infrastructural core of social, intellectual. and economic exchange.

Worldwide View, Regional Imperial Webs

As our think-tank debates take shape, one of my tasks is to lend an historical perspective and an international view. As important as the controversies surrourding the arbitrary limiting of web content by California’s cable internet provider Comcast and the Republican-colored, privilege-oriented policies of the FCC (the US Federal Communications Commission) may seem to US-based internet observers, scores of other issues preoccupy the rest of the world. The stakes of interference with internet content and access are far more severe in countries on the edge of political and civil crisis ala Turkey (see this previous posting), Afghanistan, and Pakistan while plain old access to communications and information at whatever speed remains the main issue throughout the third world. In Eastern Europe, the wild-westm laissez-faire post-communist social and regulatory environment in many countries prior to EU-accession made it easy for individuals and small companies to string cable over trees and lampposts directly from high-speed access points to one’s office or living room, thus skirting around bandwidth limitations ala Comcast. In Russia and China, moves to register domain names using local scripts are on their way to fragmenting the worldwide web into three or more mutually exclusive linguistic-and political-empire webs. In the EU, a rational regulatory environment and a century-long social democratic-rooted public willingness to pay for the infrastructure that benefits society at large keeps seems to keep US-style crises at bay. (Note: Over the last decade, Europe has quietly sailed past America in almost all things telecom- and web-access- related — not least, witness the low key impact the seemingly innovative iPhone has made outside in the EU market).

R. Crumb, NPR, and Weblog Links

During a long Istanbul-Boston Skype kick-off meeting with Doc yesterday, I mentioned a link that has graced my alter-ego weblog site Bubkes.Org since its inception. The link is to legendary cartoonist R. Crumb’s 12-panel cartoon A Short History of America. Crumb’s twelve drawings document and clarify the concept, development ( or, better said, random accretion), and outcome of what passes for infrastructure in the USA.*

Great minds think alike, it seems. I lifted the R. Crumb link from the insightful, rightfully enraged, and excellently researched weblog Clusterfucknation. At Clusterfucknation, Jim Kunstler has been writing for years on America’s automobile-highway-suburb dependency, the politics and consequences of an oil-and-gas-based world, and a host of other transportation and infrastructural issues. Kunstler’s political insights and passions are also spot-on and searing (e.g. see Kunstler’s recent take on the democratic primary campaign Slip of the Tongue).

NPR’s ( the US’s independent non-commercial, listener- and grant-supported public radio system’s) On the Media program over the last months has featured a number of guests at the center of debates on web access and governance. These include Harvard’s and Oxford’s Jonathon Zittrain, Columbia’s Tim Wu, and San Francisco’s free-high-speed-access activist Brewster Kahle (click here for MP3s and/or transcripts of interviews all three and of other relevant actors as well). Despite the years I have been working in and around the worlds of telecommunications and the internet, I must confess that all these names are new ones to me. I am especially impressed by the introduction to Tim Wu’s and Jack Goldsmith’s book Who Controls the Internet? Illusions of a Borderless World (excerpt available via Amazon.Com) which begins with the conundrum of the French legal action against Yahoo some years for facilitating violations of French laws against rascism and antisemitism. I look forward to reading Wu and Goldsmith, and Zittrain, in full.

Former colleague, close friend, and frequent sounding-board Naomi Yoder-Harris recently pointed me to the weblog of NYC-based web and tech specialist Hank Williams (in no way to be confused with the eponymous legendary country singer). Naomi had seen Williams interviewed by Brian Lehrer on the cable station of the City University of New York. Williams casts light on the negative commercial effects for freelancers and small entrepreneurs of too much venture capital and too many free services on the internet.**

New York, Rage, Social Democracy, and Infrastructure

Williams’s words give me an opportunity to link together Doc and my nascent conversations on infrastructure with the piece I recently wrote on Rev. Wright and the Hyperbole of Rage. As a born-and-raised New Yorker, I recognize in Williams’s piece on venture capital a distinctly New York state of mind. New Yorkers have their work-roots in small struggling niche companies and the lumpen-bourgeoisie, in versatile skilled and unskilled labor, and in the pre-financial and pre-information economy of craft, ingenuity, sweat, and heavy lifting. We know how easy it is to be drowned, crushed, or exploited by the big guys and know how to fight against this. We know the power of and need for collective action. We also have a demonstrated willingness to pay for the physical and social infrastructure that enables us to do what we do and to live as we want. Such willingness to spend is equally grounded in knowing that social and economic infrastructure is worth the investment and in a distinctly non-Calvinist flare for grand gestures and extravagance.*** (California “libertarians” take note: WE and PAYING are two of the operative words behind infrastructure).

In his Linux Journal piece, Doc reprinted a quote I had taken from the introduction to Joshua Freeman’s brilliant book Working Class New York. Freeman shows how the specialized and agglomeration-dependent nature of crafts, manufacturing, and transshipment in 19th- and early-to-mid-20th-century New York, together with the shared experience and collectivist nature of a the City’s largely-immigrant workforce, led to New York’s development of a voluntary- and governmental-sponsored infrastructure atypical of the rest of America and at the fore of the European social democratic mold. Up to the 1970s, New York boasted a unique infrastructure of low-cost public transportation, free water supply, free public hospitals, free public schools, free libraries, and free universities; public, confessional and union social welfare institutions; and public housing and union-sponsored cooperative housing found nowhere else in the US. The denouement of collective New York, due in part to the conjunction of the emergence of the so-called financial economy with the fiscal crises of the 1970s and the vengeance of Republicans in power in Washington at the time is also treated in Freeman’s book.

One of the drivers of New York’s collective ethos and energies and of New Yorkers willingness to press for, build, and pay for infrastructure is the very rage of the sort that animated Obama’s former pastor’s now-infamous “God Damn America” pun and the Yiddish folksong “Grine Kuzine.” The rage that bubbled over during events such as the now-forgotten kosher meat riots of 1902 and following the senseless deaths of scores of female garment workers at the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in 1911 accelerated the formation of labor unions and confession-based, charitable, and governmental institutions and infrastructure that made New York an egalitarian and socially mobile city with the collective intellect, excellence, and creativity that was to play an out-sized role in America and the world in the 20th and early 21st centuries.

More to follow…

Notes:

* For anyone who does not know who R. Crumb was (is), I offer to this quote from Crumb’s magnificent 1960s cartoon hero, the white-robed, white-bearded guru Mr. Natural. When asked by a conservatively dressed elderly woman the meaning of the phrase “do-wha-diddee,” Mr. Natural replied: “Lady, if you don’t know by now, don’t mess with it!”)

** For all of Williams insight I am puzzled by his site’s name. Why do American tech types overuse and render banal the word “suck”? We New Yorkers traditionally used this word in an non-delicately outspoken sexual way and in the lyrical macho aggressiveness of “sounding” and “the dozens.” How dispiriting silly to hear the word applied to ennui, the internet, and gadgetry.

*** In the discussion following a recent meeting in New York in honor of the 10th anniversary of the conception of the business best-seller Cluetrain Manifesto (see the final paragraphs of this post) I suggested that people who are obsessed with free and unwilling to support public radio, small companies (see Williams’s arguments above), big infrastructure, etc., should attend more Roma (Gypsy) weddings and Turkish night clubs and join in showering musicians and dancers with cascades of banknotes — a non-transaction tribute to the excellence of the performers as well as a statement of ones own grandiosity. Grandiosity also played a role in the development of infrastructure throughout history. To restrict the subject to New York alone, the building projects of Tammany Hall put accented regal monumentality over utility. Self-congratulatory futuristic monumentality was inherent in the works of Robert Moses, the public works czar who shaped the parks, neighborhoods, bridges, highways, and suburban sprawl of 20th century New York.

Posted in Cities, Commentary, History, Infrastructure, Internet, Work | Leave a Comment »

Turkish WordPress Ban Appears to Be Lifted: Religion, Secularism, Democracy, Web Neutrality, and Infrastructure

Posted by Stephen Lewis on April 23, 2008

I am writing this entry from Istanbul. From early 2007 until quite recently this had not been possible. HakPakSak, together with approximately 1.5 million other sites hosted by WordPress, had been blocked in Turkey, this the result of a weblog-based spat between two Islamic “creationists” (i.e. opponents of Darwin’s theory of evolution) both with links to their fundamentalist Protestant equivalents in the US. A law suit by one of the protagonists against the other led to an order from the district court of an ultra-religious quarter of Istanbul to block from view in Turkey all weblogs site containing the word “wordpress” in their URLs . Unquestioning bureaucratic compliance with the court order followed. (Click here for a somewhat longer past post on the subject).

The lifting of the blocking of sites hosted by WordPress (an unintentional internet analogue of the Cold War practice of “jamming” ideologically unacceptable radio-broadcasts) comes at an odd and stressful moment in the history of modern Turkey. Over the last months, the country teeters on the edge of crisis. A move by Turkey’s democratically-elected (but not necessarily democratic) government to lift a ban on the wearing of head-scarves by Muslim female students at the country’s universities has led to a counter-move from militant secularists on the left, center and right and an appeal to the Turkey’s highest court to mandate the dissolution of the country’s ruling party, the pro-Islamic Ak Party, and the banning of its leading members from participation in politics.

This drama is part of a larger conundrum in which Turkey’s conservative, pro-Islamic, ostensibly pro-European-Union-membership, ruling AK party is opposed by secularists spearheaded by parties (not all of them democratic) dedicated to the legacy of the founder of modern Turkey, Ataturk, and backed by the army and police. The conflict plays itself out in government, society, and the press, as well as in a shadow world of a “deep state” and conspiracies, provocations, and violence that would be the envy of Bush/Cheney/Rice/ex-Rumsfeld and Co. For detailed background and coverage, see this excellent report from the European Stability Institute, whose seemingly penetrating work I would even have even more faith in if they would be more open about the researchers and writers who comprise their team.

That Turkey could, within the framework of its domestic legal system and governmental institutions, quickly and easily block 1.5 million sites is even more disturbing than the current US conflict over the right of internet service providers to give “fast lane” priority to selected content and slow-down or block other traffic based on self-determined criteria. (For a short summary of the recent US Comcast affair and the debate over “web neutrality” see this recent article on CNET.)

In this week’s Linux Journal, senior editor Doc Searls turns to the question of the internet (and operating systems) as infrastructure. Within the context of this question, one of the issues I will try to address over the next weeks is whether and to what degree arbitrary, transitory clusters of capital and/or power — nation states as well as companies — should be allowed to deny access to or pull-the-plug on aspects of infrastructure, the internet included, that are not of their creation and that transcend their boundaries, especially as the conduct of business, intellectual activities, science, public debate and public affairs become more web-dependent.

More to follow…

Posted in Censorship, Commentary, Infrastructure, Internet, Politics | 1 Comment »

Books and Beer, Soft-Soap and a Wooden Leg, Content and Clients, and ‘Cluetrain’+10

Posted by Stephen Lewis on February 12, 2008

During the years that I lived in the Netherlands, a few hours free from work in Amsterdam meant an opportunity for lunch at Solly Meier’s sandwich shop on the Nieuwemarkt — split-pea soup and pekelvlees (homemade corned beef) on a roll — followed by a canal-side stroll across town to browse in the bookstores clustered near the Spui and Nieuwezijdsvoorburgwaal, inner-city streets that were once the center of the Holland’s newspaper publishing industry. Afterwards, I’d retreat to the IJsbreker Cafe, with its magnificent view of the Amstel river, to skim through my purchases over a glass of beer.

Browsing

My method for bookstore browsing involved turning off all preconceptions of what I might want to read or felt I should read and opening myself to the associative logic and randomly arranged contents of shelves and bins. The resulting finds ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous, some introduced me to authors and insights I would not have discovered otherwise and a few changed the course of my life.

At the sublime end of the spectrum was a paperback copy of Benedict Anderson’s “Imagined Communities,” an historical study of the artificiality of present-day national identities and the roles of printing, publishing, and the standardization of languages in their creation. Anderson’s book helped to begin to understand the origins and pathology of the hysterical rage towards the remaining signs of Turkish and Muslim life in the Balkans that I had encountered during my involvement in documenting the remaining infrastructure of Ottoman and Islamic society in the region. “Imagined Communities” — together with other works that followed in its wake, most notably Patrick Geary’s excellent “The Myth of Nations: the Medieval Origins of Europe” — are the underpinnings of my present research and writing on the dynamics of national identities and their reflection in the ways minorities are accepted or marginalized and their architectural monuments remembered or wiped away.

At the ridiculous end was a remaindered hardback copy of “The Aggravations of Minnie Ashe” by Cyril Kersh, a British journalist’s stylized humorous reminiscences of his childhood in the East End of London during the 1930s. The book opens with a description of the run-down East End streets and and dusty lots that served as his playgrounds: “… for me a splendid place for games and make-believes, for my mother yet further proof (not that any was needed) that life was a vast and cunning plot aimed at the humiliation and ultimate destruction of herself and her family.” It proceeds to relate Kersh’s widowed mother’s desperate struggles to raise her children and realize her lifelong dream of one day returning to the place where she had spent her honeymoon, the working-class beach resort of Westcliff-on-Sea.

Soft Soap and a Wooden Leg, Content and Clients

Spanning both the sublime and the ridiculous was a single-volume hardback reprint of a 1923 Belgian novel “Lijmen” (“Soft-Soap”) and its 1938 sequel “Het Been” (“The Wooden Leg”) both by Flemish-language writer Willem Elsschot. I had first read “Lijmen” and “Het Been” in English-language translation over thirty years ago. Had I read a better translation or been a more careful reader at the time, the books might have spared me the agony of decades of work in the communications field or at least sharpened my sense of humor while doing so. Last month, I reread “Lijmen” and “Het Been” in the original Dutch/Flemish and realized to my shock how delightfully and accurately they captured the absurdity of much of the content of my work life and portrayed the pomposity and dubious worth of business communications and the cynicism of client-supplier “relations.” The two books remain as much to the point in the age of the internet as they were in the age of print.

The plot of “Lijmen” is simple enough. Indeed, many who have worked in the murky worlds where advertising and journalism mix will recognize it immediately. Laarmans, a fiery young activist in the struggle for Flemish independence, disillusioned and depressed at the realization that both he and the movement are headed nowhere, goes out for a night of serious drinking. In a bar, he meets Boorman, a portly, elegantly dressed man, obviously wealthy, who makes him a tempting offer. If Laarmans will shave his beard, trade his bohemian clothes for a conservative suit and agree to go by the patrician-sounding Portuguese Marrano name of Teixera de Mattos, Boorman will make him his secretary and groom him as his successor at his two prestigious-sounding enterprises: The International Illustrated Journal of Finance, Trade, Industry, Art, and Science and The Museum of Domestic and Foreign Production and Trade.

The Journal, Boorman boasts, has print runs in the millions despite its paid circulation of zero and a full-time staff of nobody. In fact, the publication is an archetypal promotional magazine. Customers can place glowing written and visual portraits of their companies and products in the journal merely by committing themselves to purchasing tens or hundreds of thousands or even millions of copies of off-prints which they pay for in cash or in kind. Boorman’s technique for closing deals is lijmen, literally “to glue” but figurative “soft-soap,” the knack of playing on potential victims’ dreams or vanities or, if their enterprises are fraudulent or products substandard, their guilt or desire to stay clear of the law.

Boorman’s glowing superlative-filled articles are written to order for each client by cutting-and-pasting sentences and paragraphs from a half-dozen articles he plagiarized and filed away years before, one describing a shipyard, the second a cement factory, the third a piano maker’s atelier, and so on. Editing consists of double-checking that all instances of the words “piano” or “cement” or “shipyard” are excised from articles treating, say, a clothing factory or a printing plant. The articles are lavishly illustrated with photographs taken with the glass-plate view-camera of Boorman’s budget-rate freelance photographer, Piepers. Boorman’s museum, visitable by appointment only, is little more than a warehouse of goods he has received as payment-in-kind from hard-pressed customers who no longer have the cash to pay their contractual obligations. Exhibitions at the museum range from canned fruit to mass-produced busts of the King of Belgium. The museum’s most frequent visitor is Mme. Boorman who occasionally restocks her kitchen from the museum’s shelves.

Boorman’s favorite clients are those who, in his flamboyant speech, “… behoort tot een zeldzaam geslacht, dat slechts te lijmen is met eenvoud en oprechtheid,” i.e. “… who belong to that rare species that can be ‘taken-to-the-cleaners’ simply and justly.” But not all clients merit a fleecing. Boorman’s sale of 100,000 off-prints to the gullible Mme. Lauwereyssen of the Lauwereyssen Artistic Iron Foundry, down-at-the-heels manufacturers of wrought-iron dumbwaiters, leads to a crisis of conscience that is resolved in the sequel novel “Het Been.”

Early in the course of “Lijmen”, Boorman lectures Laarmans on the nature of clients and the ethics and tactics of dealing with them. His observations cut to a sad truth that underlies most commercial relationships and the ever-enduring propensity to manipulate and hedge rather than add value or be willing to pay for it. Boorman’s soliloquy ends with these words (my translation):

“Above all, be courageous, even if things are going against you for weeks at a time. Never trust in God, de Mattos. And, be polite to your clients. They are your enemies, never forget this. They’ll give you only what you wrench from them and will hold back all that you do not fight for with your life.”

Some of us sincerely wish there were other ways … and stubbornly live our lives behaving as if there were.

Apropos: ‘Cluetrain’+10

Apropos of the subject matter of “Lijmen” and “Het Been,” tomorrow I will be joining my friend and colleague Doc Searls for a conference on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the conception of the business best-seller “Cluetrain Manifesto,” a prognosis of the changes Doc and his co-authors expected the internet to effect. It was in “Cluetrain” that Doc coined the chestnut “Markets are Conversations” and called for a Copernican revolution in which individuals would cease to be mere “consumers” controlled by corporate marketing and would realize their power to influence and control markets themselves instead. Whether Doc still thinks markets were, have become, or ever will be conversations, and whether the present substance of such conversations is worthy or deceptive, are subjects I look forward to hearing him address. Has the internet effected a change in the nature of our personal and commercial interactions — or has it just brought us more of the same old “soft-soap” but hyperlinked and faster? Whatever the answer… happy “10th” and continued success to the “Cluetrain” authors!

 

Posted in Cities, Client Relations, Content, History, Internet, Language, Literature, Media, National Identity, Work | 1 Comment »

Articulation and Activism: In Praise of Screenwriters … and “Hackwriters” Too

Posted by Stephen Lewis on December 8, 2007

As the US entertainment writers’ strike continues, I can’t avoid weighing in with a few words of support for the striking members of the Writers’ Guild. Their long drawn-out strike is proving that without the creativity, concentration, and plain old sweat of professional writers there would be no cinema nor television, whether for better or for worse. Yet, most writers labor silently in the background with neither the celebrity, earnings continuity, nor stellar recompense that goes to many headlining actors and directors.

I could quibble about the quality of present-day Hollywood films and American television — their cliche-ridden humor, fascination with murder, and justification of authoritarian police behavior and Mafia violence — but the central issue of the present strike is business-like and central to concepts of intellectual property and the rights of labor, i.e. residuals, the ongoing payments to writers for the rebroadcasting and reuse of creative works they have conceived and shaped and their right to share in the fruits of the long-term popularity and earnings of productions they have penned.

The strikers’ demands focus on residuals from new and emerging distribution channels — especially the internet. Over the last decades, writers time and again missed the boat on gaining a fair share of earnings from the recycling of their work via new media, including videocassettes and DVDs. Now, they are determined not to repeat this mistake with internet distribution. All of us who who are paid job-by-job for our labor and/or creative abilities should back the strikers in whatever ways we can. The same goes for those of us who believe in the future of internet as the primary distribution channel for news, opinion, knowledge, and entertainment and who understand that media are just what the word implies, i.e. “dark fiber” and “empty pipes”, vehicles for conveying content and no more. In the end, backing the strike means willingness to pay for internet content, directly or indirectly, and to pressure those who charge for content, i.e. the owners of networks and other marketing shells, to ensure that a fair share of the life-long earnings of productions goes those who create them.

Some Strike-Related Links

The writer’s strike is explained and tracked in detail at United Hollywood. The United Hollywood site also contains links to a number of YouTube pieces in support of the strike. My favorite is a testimonial by nonagenarian Writers’ Guild member Irv Brecher who wrote for the Marx Brothers in the late-1930s and for television (“The Life of Riley”) in the early-1950s. Also on target is this report (ABC Executive Now Writing All Their Shows Himself) from my favorite source of news as it could or should be, Doyle Redland of the Onion Radio News. Last, hose who are not afraid of Brooklyn-size dollops of political incorrectness might want to look at this characteristically unsparing (but smiling) piece from Dallas Penn, the point of which is that openness in terms of personal identity does not necessarily equal progressiveness or compassion when it comes to political and economic issues that affect the lives and livelihoods of others.

And “Hackwriters” Too

For most of my life, I’ve been cursed with the ability to write. In many of the places I’ve worked, the task of writing has fallen on my shoulders. My strengths as a writer have been neither my style nor even my knowledge, but simply my ability to muscle my way through half-thought-out or poorly-expressed ideas — whether my own or those of others — and sharpen and express the thinking, motives, facts, and logic behind them and leave no essential point unarticulated. This dubious ability led me for years to make my living bouncing back and forth between writing/translating and management, organizational, and project consultancy. Put simply, when asked by mayors or marketing execs or “CEO”s to write articles or commercial, legal, or technical documents presenting their strategies, policies, or activities, I had to clarify and tighten-up not only their syntax but their thinking, intents, and understandings of their own organizations and the world-at-large By writing, I created a mirror by which strategies could be tested and implemented, organizations changed and motivated, projects realized, and markets and populations reached and influenced. This was not always appreciated.

Corporate and technical “hackwriters” are on the bottom of the organizational totem pole in both the public and private sectors and in academia and science as well. In all fields, they are anonymous cogs in the wheel, this regardless of their communications skills being the medium of exchange that enable organizations to function. The situation is most extreme with the proposals and grants writers who debug the thinking and craft the documents that bring in multi-million dollar grants and multi-billion dollar projects for others. Like most corporate and tech writers, they receive no bonus shares of the projects they land nor any residuals from the worth of the companies and institutions they help enrich build. It is time for business and techwriters to follow the lead of striking entertainment writers and claim their fair share. As the “Wobblies” of the old IWW would have had it: “One Big Union!”

(This post is written with the support and approval of Naomi Yoder-Harris, a fine institutional writer who for two decades has been an important sounding board for the quality and content of my own work.)

Posted in Articulation, Communications, Internet, Media, Work | 2 Comments »

Byzantine Walls, Ottoman Dungeons, Genoese Towers, and a Little-Known Firewall: Turkey’s Ban on WordPress and HakPakSak

Posted by Stephen Lewis on November 5, 2007

Section of Byzantine Walls Istanbul

Above: An unrestored section of the great Byzantine defensive walls of Istanbul.

One of the pleasures of traveling by night train from the Balkans to Istanbul is the wonder of approaching this 1,700 year-old metropolis at dawn. The Turkish, Bulgarian, Serbian, and Romanian sleeping carriages that make up the Istanbul-bound Balkan Express rattle alongside the Sea of Marmara and then suddenly enter the historic core of the city through a gap in the Istanbul’s famed Byzantine-era walls not far from Yedikule, the Byzantine and Turkish tower enclosure that during Ottoman times had served as a quarantine for diplomatic missions arriving in the Ottoman capital from the West. The train continues around the edge of Istanbul’s historic peninsula past fragments of Byzantine and Ottoman sea walls, rickety 19-th century wooden dwellings, and the faceless concrete buildings that make up much of the city’s urban landscape. Finally, after the rounding the promontory below the Topkapi Palace, the train suddenly pulls in to its final terminus, the late-19th-century Moorish-Revival style railway station at Sirkeci.

The Great Walls of Istanbul

I spent this most of this past October in Istanbul. Before getting down to work, I devoted the first days of my stay to revisiting the city’s historic walls. The day of my arrival I took advantage of Sunday stillness to duck in and out of empty parking lots and clamber through deserted demolition sites in the usually crowded and hectic quarter of Galata in search of remaining lengths of the defensive walls of this one-time Genoese commercial settlement. Later that day, from the deck of a boat cruising the Golden Horn, I watched the sun set behind restored sections of Istanbul’s great Byzantine lands walls, from their water-side anchor at Ayvansaray upward towards the heights of the city near the Edirne Gate, Istanbul’s long-ago portal for armies and caravans leaving for the Balkans and Central Europe. The next day, with friends Grigor Boykov and Mariya Kiprovska (Ottomanist scholars presently resident at the Koς Institute in Istanbul) I traversed the full length of the Byzantine walls from the Marmara all the way back to the Golden Horn. Our walk took us from Yedikule past walled-in Greek and Armenian churches and former dervish Tekkes that dot what until very recently had been the near-rural backwaters of the city (indeed neither Byzantine Constantinople nor Ottoman Istanbul , even at their apogees, had ever grown to totally fill the city limits charted by the great land walls). On our way, we passed the centuries-old Roma (Gypsy) quarter at Sulukule, now threatened by planned urban redevelopment, the delicate filigree-like walls of the great Ottoman architect Sinan’s Mihrimah mosque, severely damaged in the earthquake of 1999, and the restored remains of the Tekfursaray, the Byzantine palace of Porphyrogenitus. In all, it took us only a little over three hours to stroll the full 6 kilometer length of the walls. A decade ago, the very same walk had taken me much longer. These last years, roadways have been cleared adjacent to restored sections the walls, channeling into near-straight lines what was once a zig-zagging route that in places challenged even the best map readers. The clearing of streets, neighborhoods, and shanty-towns abutting the walls marks a new axis of touristic development and gentrification in what throughout Byzantine and Ottoman times had been the barely-settled edge of the city’s historic peninsula. The restoration of the walls themselves has transformed a chain of crumbling but real ruins into a bright but artificial-looking anchor for future redevelopment.

Turkey’s Ham-Fisted Firewall

Alas, historic town walls were not the only walls I encountered on the first days of my latest stay in Istanbul. I also came up against a new, intangible, and far-less-well-known wall that has the potential of isolating the people of Turkey from contact, information exchange, and commercial transactions with the rest of the world. The government of Turkey, it appears, has chosen to join the ranks of China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan in deploying and setting to work a firewall capable of filtering-out and blocking any and all internet content deemed objectionable by civil authorities. Earlier this year, Turkey had blocked access to YouTube and, since this summer has also blocked all content hosted by WordPress.Com, including as many as 1.5 million weblog sites, this very site amongst them. Despite its scope and potential impact, the face of Turkey’s great firewall manifests itself quite modestly. When I attempted to log-on to this site from Istanbul, I was greeted with a white screen containing a simple red-headlined paragraph stating in Turkish and English that the site is banned by order of an injunction issued by the district court of Fatih, Istanbul’s most markedly religious and conservative quarter. The exact wording: “Site Closed: Access to this site has been suspended in accordance with decision no: 2007/195 of T.C. Fatih 2.Civil Court of First Instance.” The full story of how this came about can be read in this article — Shooting the Messenger – on the weblog of the Guardian (my thanks to Max Hartmuth for the reference). The summary version: Harun Yahya, a Turkish full-time “creationist” and anti-Zionist, brought suit against one of his competitors and detractors who allegedly was using a number of WordPress-hosted weblogs to libel him. In ham-fisted fashion, the Fatih court granted Harun Yahya’s attorney’s an injunction for the blocking of not only the offending blogs but of every other site whose URL identifies it as being hosted by WordPress. The injunction was implemented in equally ham-fisted fashion by the appropriate communications authorities. Anyone in Turkey who wants to read WordPress press can do so via a proxy server (kproxy.com, for example, or, for those who are gadgetry-minded and capable of reading fine print, Opera’s website-based simulator of its OperaMini mobile phone-browser). My attempts to post to this site, however, even via proxies, were unsuccessful.

Turkey’s Open-Armed Friends

Those of us who, like this writer, are friends of Turkey and who support the country on a number of crucial historical and political issues, including Turkey’s bid for EU membership, are put in an odd position by the WordPress ban. Although life will go on just fine without access to a million or so weblogs, the precedent of internet censorship and blockage of internet communication on this scale should be extremely disturbing for foreigners and Turks alike. It is also symptomatic of Turkey’s unfortunate propensity to quash debates and controversies when it would be better simply to let them aired. As a number of the military and diplomatic events that confronted Turkey in October seem to demonstrate, pushing debates and arguments into the future only causes them to fester. More on this in a subsequent entry.

Footnote: Strange Bedfellows

An interesting side-issue raised by the writer of the Shoot the Messenger posting on the Guardian website is the possible link between fundementalist Protestant “creationists” is the US and their Muslim fellow-”creationists” in Turkey. The US fundamentalist Christian right is quick to rant about imagined “culture wars” and so-called “Islamofascism” when it suits them but are all-too-willing to lay down with the “enemy” when doing so advances their own narrow interpretation of revealed religion and the subjugation of liberal education and free inquiry to enforced adherence to arbitrarily defined dogma.

Below left: An Ottoman tower at Yedikule at the Sea of Marmara end of Istanbul’s great defensive walls. Center: The interior of the tower, a one time detention-place for foreign envoys. Right: The 14th-century Galata tower, emblematic of the eponymous medieval Genoese trading colony, 19th-century Jewish neighborhood, and present-day center of gentrification.

Yedikule Exterior Yedikule Interior Galata Tower

Digital snapshots copyright Stephen Lewis, 2007.

Posted in Censorship, Cities, Commentary, History, Internet | 5 Comments »

America’s Labor Day, The Right to Be Lazy, the Photocopy Shops of Istanbul, and the Democratization of Knowledge

Posted by Stephen Lewis on September 9, 2007

Last Monday was Labor Day, the annual U.S. holiday marking the end of the summer season. The origins of Labor Day date to the early 1880′s when a New York City carpenters’ union proposed a day honoring the city’s craftsmen and laborers. In 1882, New York was the site of the country’s first Labor Day parade, sponsored by the Knights of Labor, a forerunner of the AFL-CIO. Labor Day was soon taken up in other US cities and states and in 1894, in the aftermath of the breaking of the great Pullman and railway workers’ strike, was declared a nation-wide holiday — possibly as a bone thrown to the less radical side of the nascent U.S. labor movement.

Labor Day vs. May Day

In the 20th century, Labor Day celebrations were contrasted with their more radical European equivalents, the enthusiastic and often explosive mass rallies and demonstrations held on May 1. In the U.S., Labor Day was touted as the non-revolutionary workingman’s holiday and May Day as radical, foreign, anti-American. Ironically, however, May Day had been declared the official holiday of the world socialist movement by a convocation of the Second International in Paris in 1890 in tribute to the victims of a purely American tragedy: the Chicago Haymarket riots of 1886 and the subsequent round-up, show trials, and execution of local German-American craftsmen and anarchists. While European May Day celebrations reflected their radical origins well into the last third of the 20th century, America’s Labor Day celebrations ground to a halt and the holiday devolved into a wistful day off in the fading warmth of summer … and, more recently, into another occasion for the retail store sales and compulsive shopping that accompany most American celebrations, secular and religious.

The Right to Be Lazy

Some weeks ago, a friend who I knew from the 1960s asked me whether four decades after I’d first read Marx — in the process squandering an irreclaimable chunk of the sexual revolution to wade through Das Kapital — I could consider myself a Marxist. My response was to ask: What kind of Marxist? A Stalinist? No way. A Trotskyite? Out of romantic fantasy and ethnic solidarity, maybe. A Western-European-style democratic socialist? Most certainly. A La Fargue-ist? With enthusiasm and a smile!

This Labor Day, I blew the dust off of one the most treasured volumes on my bookshelves, one of the most underrated social and economic manifestos of the 19th-century, Paul Lafargue’s The Right to Be Lazy. And, in the spirits of Labor Day and May 1 both, I took the leisure to reread it.

Cuban-born Lafargue (1842-1911) was Karl Marx’s very own son-in-law but family ties did not prevent Lafargue from giving Marx’s work a needed tweak. Whereas Marx rails about the necessity of transferring ownership of the means of production from capitalists to the proletariat, Lafargue takes aim at production itself. The real enemy of all mankind, according to Lafargue, is its own senseless compulsion to produce, the self-destructive compulsion to work. Forget about fighting for the right to work, Lafargue argues, one should struggle for the right to be lazy!

Marx’s famed Communist Manifesto begins with the warning that the specter of class-based violence is haunting Europe but the opening paragraph of Lafargue’s The Right to Be Lazy warns us against a more insidious danger from within, our own supposed industriousness:

“A strange delusion possesses the working classes of the nations where capitalist civilization holds sway. This delusion is the love of work. The proletariat, the great class embracing all the producers of civilized nations, has let itself be perverted by the dogma of work. Rude and terrible has been its punishment! All its individual and social woes are born of its passion for work.”

For Lafargue, work is, at best, a mere prelude to leisure and to the creativity, inventiveness, and satisfaction that only leisure can yield. To portray the benefits of leisure over labor Lafargue asks us to consider two horses, a pampered and groomed racehorse from the stables of the Rothschilds and a worn dray horse that spends its days pulling endless heavy loads. Which creature, he asks us, is more magnificent, more worthy of emulation?

The Three-Hour Day

Lafargue uses a complex set of calculations to prove that three hours of labor per person per day would suffice to satisfy the needs of most individuals and all of mankind. More than three hours, he cautions, is detrimental to ourselves and to the world at large, leading to overproduction, wasting of resources, adulteration of goods and services, imperial and colonial adventures, and, worst of all, economies that are driven by what we would now call … marketing.

I would dispute Lafargue’s results. Almost a half century of work has taught me that daily bursts of four to five hours of labor are more than sufficient, providing one is rested and relaxed and at least somewhat motivated and dedicated. Additional hours are padding — needless meetings, gossip and make-work, real and virtual trips to the water cooler (including the contemporary equivalents of compulsive email checks, web searches, and online gaming), avoidance of going home, or expressions of managers’ sadistic desires to make employees endure needlessly long days as punishment for being paid. And, padding is not without cost, compromised quality and declining productivity being among the obvious over the long run.

Lafargue is oddly prescient. He foresaw the near suicidal overwork that characterized sweatshops, Soviet idealization of “Stakhanovites,” U.S. misadventures in “scientific management,” and the expansion of the American workweek over the past few decades from a hard-won forty hour week back up to a nerve-fraying fifty to sixty hours or more. Lafargue also anticipated the waste and environmental damage of economies based on continuous expansion of production, the conflicts caused by continuous seeking out of new markets, and the torpor and perennial dissatisfaction occasioned by cajoling existing markets into ever-increasing consumption. His model also provides insight into the short-sighted moves of the present-day newly elected right-of-center government of his adopted country, France, against its 35-hour work week and strong social services and towards the American model of lower pay, less security, and longer hours for those not at the top and tax breaks for those who are.

Syphilis and Production

The Right to Be Lazy, by the way, merits a reading not only for Lafargue’s analysis and prescriptions but also for his (and 19th century translator Charles H. Kerr’s) delightfully ironic style, another way in which Lafargue sets himself apart from his father-in-law. For example, in the midst of a pointing out how the middle-class moved over the centuries from industriousness to a life of indulgence built upon the overwork of wage earners Lafargue posits this paradox:

“Today every son of the newly rich makes it incumbent upon himself to cultivate the disease for which quicksilver is a specific in order to justify the labors imposed on the the workmen in quicksilver mines.”

The Photocopy Shops of Istanbul

The full text of The Right to Be Lazy is available on the internet but I prefer to read it in hard copy, a medium more conducive to a leisurely afternoon on a park bench or a peaceful coffee or beer at an outdoor cafe. My own copy of The Right to Be Lazy is hardcover, bound in embossed imitation leather and gold-stamped with the title and author’s name. It even has a ribbon (more of a shoelace actually) sewn into the binding for marking one’s place.

My personal edition Lafargue’s book is one of many volumes that I have bought over the years at a category of institution that occupies a minuscule but important niche in world’s information infrastructure: the photocopy shops of Istanbul.

Istanbul’s photocopy shops copy are crowded storefront affairs crammed with photocopy machines, bookshelves, and hundreds or thousands of bound and unbound volumes. They smell of paper, xerox toner, bookbinder’s glue, and cheap take-out lunches and are usually silent but for the shuttling of photocopier lamp heads, the rattling of automatic collating racks and the occasional ringing of old fashioned telephones.

A typical photocopy shop works as follows: A customer comes in to have a book photocopied. The shop photocopies and binds the book’s pages but also produces as second set of photocopies that it keeps as a master for preparing additional volumes for shelf display or for order from the shop’s catalog (as often as not available in pamphlet form or on 3.5″ floppies as a grudging concession to the digital age).

The shop I patronize is located in the warren of streets bounded by the immense Byzantine-period underground cisterns of the Yerebatan Saray and by the Divan Yolu, the ancient main thoroughfare and axis of old Istanbul. The shop is just around the corner from the Turkey’s central archives housing the tens of millions of documents that are the administrative patrimony of the Ottoman period and only minutes from the tourist magnets of Haghia Sofia and the Mosque of Sultan Ahmet. The shop’s stock varies from historical and literary works in Turkish and Islamic religious volumes to an erratic variety of historical and lingusitic arcana in English. A small sampling of my own purchases over the years reflect the scope of the shop’s usual contents: Gibbs’s six-volume A History of Ottoman Poetry, F.W. Hasluck’s classic Christianity and Islam Under the Sultans, Mason’s Passion of Al-Hallaj, Millingen’s books on Byzantine Constantinople and its churches, Galante’s 1930s monograph on the synagogues of Istanbul, and a number of memoirs by now-forgotten 19th-century Protestant missionaries to Anatolia and the Balkans, as well as, of course, Lafargue’s The Right to Be Lazy.

Photocopies and the Democratization of Knowledge

At first glance, Istanbul’s photocopy shops appear to be involved in blatant copyright violation and theft of intellectual property. But the situation is far more complex, an analogue precursor of contemporary issues facing the internet, libraries, and the publishing industry. Many of the works available at photocopy shops at $10 -$20 per volume are long out of print and otherwise available only through antiquarians or in low-run limited-edition reprints at prices in the $100 – $200 range, via high-priced subscriptions to online data bases, and, of course, to those with the credentials and sufficient leisure, at specialized libraries. The effect of this is magnified in Turkey, a country in which income distribution is decided unequal and most people’s disposable incomes are far below Western European and even American levels.

Photocopy shops also provided a physical and spatial means for expanding one’s knowledge of the world and of the millennia of discourse examining it. Photocopy shops offer the curious an opportunity to browse through categories of books — volumes at the edges of mainstream of knowledge and rarefied areas of specialized research — and thumb through titles they most likely would not find in Istanbul’s otherwise excellent Turkish- and English-language bookstores and would not otherwise encounter unless they have the luxury to be involved in full-time studies or research.

As haphazard as the collections of photocopy shops maybe, they do have their logic. In the case of my own favorite shop, that logic is a function of its spatial location, which serves as filter for its stock. What photocopy shops offer for sale is determined the books that are brought it for copying in the first place and the tastes and interests of the people who bring them. The location of my favorite shop, only tens of meters from the Ottoman archives and a little more than a kilometer from Istanbul University, gives it an academic and Ottoman-period focus. This reflects the intellectual lives of its copy service and book buying customers and their daily trajectories, through their inner selves as well as through the physical complexity of Istanbul. It also forms a case study in the dynamics of traditional cities and is an analogue mirror of concepts of community and social networking that we now associate with the internet.

Afterthought: Lafargue, the Future of the Copy Shop, and Reclaiming the Leisure and Focus to Read

The photocopy copy shop in which I bought Lafargue’s manifesto in praise of the three-hour workday is open eleven hours a day, seven days a week — a function of low margins, high rents, increasing paper and toner costs, skyrocketing cost of living, and, maybe, as Lafargue would have it, a dose of misplaced industriousness as well. Most of the shop’s customers work equally long days. In a more Lafargue-ian world would the store survive and its customer’s reclaim the leisure and focus to read more? I’m willing to gamble on it.

Posted in Books, Cities, History, Infrastructure, Internet, Marx, Work | 4 Comments »

Libraries vs. the Internet: Researching the Peloponnesian War, the British Library’s “Turning the Pages” Project, and a Brilliantly Aesthetic Weblog

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 26, 2007

This past June, I posted an entry (Library Access, the Limits of the Web, and the Shelling of Sarajevo) weighing in against the misconception that the Internet is equal to or will render obsolete the world’s great libraries. Soon after, I came across this recent paper: The Peloponnesian War and the Future of Reference, Cataloging, and Scholarship in Research Libraries (2007) by Thomas Mann, Ph.D (author of The Oxford Guide to Library Research, 3rd edition, Oxford University Press, 2005).

Mann’s paper — prepared for AFSCME 2910, the Library of Congress Professional Guild — is a compelling 40-page examination of the roles of libraries, librarians, and cataloging, and of the place and present limits of the Internet. Beginning with the device of a student’s attempt to research the Peloponnesian War, Mann reflects on the nature of research, knowledge, and scholarly discourse vs. “quick fix” searches for isolated facts. His consideration of the visceral and associative nature of delving into open stack collections inspires one to set out in search of the nearest library. Vis-a-vis the Internet, one of Mann’s main points of concern is:

“The inadequacy of the open Internet alone for scholarly research – its inability to provide overviews of “the whole elephant”—i.e., not showing all relevant parts, not distinguishing important from tangential, not showing interconnections or relationships, not adequately allowing recognition of what cannot be specified.”

In all, Mann’s paper is an enticing challenge to all of us to return to libraries, to expand our knowledge, and to taste and enter the worlds of research, scholarship and discourse, whether as participants or occasional observers. Internet partisans sometimes prefer aphorisms and “getting it” to longer, well-reasoned arguments but anyone interested in seeing the internet fulfill its potential in the hosting, association, and democratization of knowledge would do well to at least skim the paper.

Turning the Pages

One of the best projects I have encountered on the Web to digitize, examine, and make accessible treasured books and manuscripts is the British Library’s Turning the Pages site. Turning the Pages includes magnificently reproduced rare books — their pages made “turnable” via Shockwave — with English-language transcriptions of their texts and, in some cases audio files of readings of the texts in their original languages. Still, the project presents the texts in isolation and without links or references to facilitate research or place them within the contexts of collections, background material, relevant scholarship, etc. — one of the pitfalls that Mann refers to in his monograph.

A Brilliantly Aesthetic Weblog

I first found Mann’s paper on Libraries and the Internet on wood s lot, a prodigious weblog of impeccably selected — and equally impeccably associated — photographs, paintings, and literary quotes. I truly recommend it … and thank its author for his occasional links to Hak Pak Sak!

Posted in Digitization, Internet, Libraries, Literature | 1 Comment »

 
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