14 August 2013

The Minigraph: The Future of the Monograph?


It has taken digital a lot longer that many had thought to provide a serious challenge to print, but it seems to me that we are now in a new moment in which digital texts enable screen-reading, if it is not an anachronism to still call it that, as a sustained reading practice. Here, I am thinking particularly of the way in which screen technologies, including the high resolution retina displays common on iPhones, kindle e-ink, etc., combined with much more sensitive typesetting design practices in relation to text, are producing long-form texts that are pleasurable to read on a screen-based medium and as ebooks. This has happened most noticeably in magazine articles and longer newspaper features, but is beginning to drift over into well designed reading apps that we find on our mobile devices, such as Pocket and the "Reader" function in Safari. With this change, finally questions are seriously being asked about our writing practices, especially in terms of the assumptions and affordances that are coded into software word-processors, such as Microsoft Word, which assumes, if not enforces, a print medium mentality onto the writing practice. Word wants you to print the documents you write, and this prescriptive behaviour by the software, encourages us to "check" our documents on a "real" paper form before committing to it – even if the final form would have been a digital PDF format. The reason is that even the humble PDF is also designed for printing, as anyone who has tried to read a PDF document on a digital screen will attest, with its clunky and ill-formated structure, that actively fights against a user trying to resize a document to read. But when the reading practices of screen media are sufficient, then many of the assumptions of screen writing can be jettisoned, and with them the most disruptive and unpredictable will be the practice of writing for paper.

For there is little doubt that writing and reading the screen is different from print (see Berry 2012; Gold 2012). These differences are not just found at a technical level, for they also include certain forms of social practice, such as reading in public, passing around documents, sharing ideas and so forth. They also include the kinds of social signalling that digital documents have been very poor at incorporating into their structures, such as the cover, the publisher, the "name", or a striking design or image. Nonetheless, certainly at the present phase of digital texts, I think it is in the typesetting and typography, combined with the social reading practices that take place, such as social sharing, marking, copying/pasting, and commenting, that make digital suddenly a viable way of creating and consuming textual works. In some ways, the social signalling of the cover artwork, etc. has been subsumed into social media such as Facebook and Twitter, but I think that it is a matter of time before this is incorporated into mobile devices in some way when the price of screen technologies, especially an e-ink back cover, can be built for pennies. But to return to the texts themselves, the question of writing, of putting pen to paper, an ironic phrase if ever there was one, is on the cusp of radical change. The long thirty year period of stable writing-software created by the virtual monopoly that Microsoft gained over desktop computers, most noticeably represented by Windows, its desktop operating system, and Office, its productivity suite, is drawing to a close. From its initial introduction in 1983 on the Xenix system as Multi-Tool Word and renamed that year to the familiar Microsoft Word that we all know today (and often hate), print has been the lode star of word-processor design.

The next stage of digital text is unveiling before our eyes, and as it does, many of the textual apparatus of print are migrating to the digital platform, and as they do so the advantages of new search and discovery practices make books extremely visible and usable again, such as through Google Books (Dunleavy 2012). There is still a lot of experimentation in this space and some problems still remain, for example there is currently not a viable alternative to the "chunking" process of reading that print has taught us through pages and page numbering, nor is there a means of book marking that is as convenient as the obviousness of the changing weight of the book as it moves through our hands, or the visual clues afforded through the page volume changing from unread to read as we turn the pages. However, this has been mitigated in some ways by a turning away from very long-form, in terms of book or monograph length texts of around 80,000 words, to the moderate long-form, represented by the 15-40,000 word text which I want to call the minigraph.

By minigraph I am seeking to distinguish a specific length of text and therefore size of book that is able to move beyond the very real limitations of the 6-8,000 word article, and yet is not at such as length that the chunking problem of reading digital texts becomes too much of a problem. In other words, in its current stage of implementation, I think that digital long-form texts are most comfortable to read when they stay within this golden ratio of 15-40,000 words, broken into five or six chapters. The lack of chunking is still a problem, in my opinion, without helpful "page" numbers, and I don't think that paragraph numbering has provided a usable solution to this, but the shortness of the text means that it is readable within a reasonable period of time, creating a de facto chunking at the level of the minigraph chapter (between 2,000 and 5,000 words). Indeed, the introduction of an algorithmic paging system that is device-independent would also be helpful, for example through a notion of "planes" which are analogous to pages but calculated in real-time (see Note 1 below). This would help sidestep the problem of fatigue in digital reading, apparent even in our retina/e-ink screen practices, but also creates works that are long enough to be satisfying to read and can offer both interesting discussion, digression and scholarly apparatus as necessary. Other publishers have already been experimenting with the form, such as Palgrave with its Pivot series, a new e-book format "at 30,000 to 50,000 words, it's longer than a journal article but shorter than a traditional monograph. The Palgrave Pivot, said Hazel Newton, head of digital publishing, 'fills the space in the middle'" (Cassuto 2013). Indeed, Stanford University Press has also started "to release new material in the form of midlength e-books. 'Stanford Briefs' will run 20,000 to 40,000 words in length" which Cassuto (2013) similarly calls the "mini-monograph".

The next step is clearly, how should one write a minigraph, considering the likelihood that Microsoft Word will algorithmically prescribe paper norms, which in academia tend to either 7,000 articles or 70,000 monographs. Here, I think Dieter (2013) is right to make links with the writing practices of Book Sprints as a connecting thread to new forms of publishing (see Hyde 2013). The Book Sprint is a "genre of the ‘flash’ book, written under a short timeframe, to emerge as a contributor to debates, ideas and practices in contemporary culture... interventions that go well beyond a well-written blog-post or tweet, and give some substantive weight to a discussion or issue... within a range of 20-40,000 words" (Berry and Dieter 2012). This rapid and collaborative means of writing is a very creative and intensified form of writing, but it also tends towards the creation of texts that appear to be at an "appropriate" size for the digital medium which makes those writing practices possible in the first place. Book Sprints themselves are usually formed from 4-8 people actively involved in the writing process, and which are facilitated by another non-writing member, and which conveniently maps onto the structure of minigraph chapters discussed earlier. For Dieter, the Book Sprint is conducive to new writing practices, and by extension new reading practices, for network cultures, and therefore "formations that break from subjugation or blockages in pre-existing media and organizational workflows" (Dieter 2013). In this I think he is broadly correct, however, Book Sprints also point toward certain forms of affordance towards textual productions that are conducive to reading and writing in a digital medium, and in the context of this discussion, the word count of a minigraph.

Nick Montfort (2013) has suggested a new, predominantly digital, form of writing that enables different forms of scholarly communication, in his case that of the technical report, which he argues "is as fast as a speeding blog, as detailed and structured as a journal article, and able to be tweeted, discussed, assessed, and used as much as any official publication can be. It is issued entirely without peer review". Montfort, however, connects the technical report to the "grey literature" that is not usually considered part of scholarly publishing as such. Experiments, such as the "pamphlets" issued by the Stanford Media Lab, and which Montford argues are all but technical reports in name, seem to lie at between 10-15,000 words in length, slightly longer than a journal article, and yet a little shorter than a minigraph.

However, a key difference, or at least in the form in which I am considering the minigraph as a viable form of scholarly production, is that neither the Book Sprint nor the technical report are peer-reviewed, although they might be "peer-to-peer reviewed" (see Cebula 2010; Fitzpatrick 2011). Rather, they are rapid production, sharing and collaborative forms of document geared towards social media and intervention or technical documentation. In contrast, the minigraph would share with the other main scholarly outputs, of the journal article and the monograph, the need to be peer-reviewed and production at a high level of textual quality. This is where the minigraph points to new emergent affordances of the digital that enable the kinds of scholarly activity, such as presenting finished work, carefully annotated and referenced, supported and discursively presented, through these new nascent digital textual technologies. That is, that if these intuitions are right about the current state of digital technologies and their affordances for the writing and reading of scholarly work, then the minigraph might be a potential object with the right structure and form for digital scholarship to augment that of the article, review, monograph and so forth. Indeed, the minigraph might offer exactly the right kind of compromise for scholarly work that is called for by, for example, Drucker (2013) and Nardone and Fitzpatrick (2013) and point towards the new possibilities for writing beyond the "article" or the "book" that Robertson (2013) describes as "scholarship" which are institutionally constraining on academic creativity.

In some ways the minigraph seems to be a much less radical suggestion than the multi-modal, all singing and dancing digital object that many have been calling for or are describing. However, the minigraph, as conceptualised here, is actually potentially deeply computational in form, more properly we might describe the minigraph as a code-object. In this sense, the minigraph is able to contain programmable objects itself, in addition to its textual load, opening up many possibilities for interactive dimensions to its use and suggested by the computational document format (CDF) created by Wolfram. The minigraph as described here does not, of course, exist as such, although its form is detectable in, for example, the documents produced by the Quip app, or the dexy format, as "literate documentation", or the Booktype software. It is manifestly not meant to be in the form of Google Docs/Drive, which is essentially traditional word-processing software in the cloud, and which ironically still revolves around a print metaphor. The minigraph is then, a technical imaginary for what digital scholarly writing might be, and which remains to be coded into concrete software and manifested in the practices of scholarly writers and readers. Nonetheless, as a form of long-form text amenable to the mobile practices of readers today, the 15-40,000 word minigraph text could provide a key expressive scholarly form for the digital age.


Notes

[1] The minigraph chunks would be at 250-350 word intervals, roughly pages, and chapters of 2-5,000 words. There is no reason why the term "page" could not be used for these chunks, but perhaps "plane" is more appropriate in terms of chunks representing vertical "cuts" in the text at an appropriate frequency. So "plane 5" would be analogous to page 5, but mathematically calculable to approximately (300 x plane number) to give start word, and ((300 x plane number+1)-1) to give the end word of a particular plane.  This would make the page both algorithmically calculable and therefore device independent, but also suitable for scholarly referencing and produce usable user-friendly numbering throughout the text. As the planes are represented on screen by a digital, the numbering system would immediately be comprehended by existing users of printed texts, and therefore offer a simple transition from paper page based numbering to algorithmic numbering of documents. If the document was printed, the planes could be automatically reformatted to the page size, and hence further make the link between page and plane straightforward for the reader who might never realise the algorithmic source of the numbering system for plane chunks in a minigraph. Indeed, one might place the "plane resolution" within the minigraph text itself, in this case "300", enabling different plane chunks to be used within different texts, and hence changing the way in which a plane is calculated on a book by book basis – very similar to page numbering. One might even have different plane resolutions within chapters in a book enabling different chunks in different chapters or regions. 


Bibliography


Berry, D. M. (2012) Understanding Digital Humanities, London: Palgrave.

Berry, D. M. and Dieter, M. (2012) Book Sprinting, accessed 14/08/2013, http://www.booksprints.net/2012/09/everything-you-wanted-to-know/

Cassuto, L (2013) The Rise of the Mini-Monograph, The Chronicle of Higher Education, accessed 18/08/2013, http://chronicle.com/article/The-Rise-of-the-Mini-Monograph/141007/

Cebula, L. (2010) Peer Review 2.0,  accessed 14/08/2013, North West Historyhttp://northwesthistory.blogspot.co.uk/2010/09/peer-review-20.html

Dieter, M. (2013) Book Sprints, Post-Digital Scholarship and Subjectivation, Hybrid Publishing Lab, accessed 14/08/2013, http://hybridpublishing.org/2013/07/book-sprints-post-digital-scholarship-and-subjectivation/

Dunleavy, P. (2012) Ebooks herald the second coming of books in university social science, LSE Review of Books, 18/08/2013, http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/lsereviewofbooks/2012/05/06/ebooks-herald-the-second-coming-of-books-in-university-social-science/

Drucker, J. (2013) Scholarly Publishing, Amodern, accessed 14/08/2013, http://amodern.net/article/scholarly-publishing-micro-units-and-the-macro-scale/

Fitzpatrick, K. (2011) Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, New York University Press.

Gold, M. K. (2012) Debates in the Digital Humanities, University of Minnesota Press.

Hyde, A. (2013) Book Sprints, accessed 14/08/2013, http://www.booksprints.net

Montfort, N. (2013) Beyond the Journal and the Blog, Amodern, accessed 14/08/2013, http://amodern.net/article/beyond-the-journal-and-the-blog-the-technical-report-for-communication-in-the-humanities/

Nardone, M., and Fitzpatrick, K. (2013) We Have Never Done It That Way Before, Amodern, accessed 14/08/2013, http://amodern.net/article/we-have-never-done-it-that-way-before/

Robertson, B. J. (2013) The Grammatization of Scholarship, Amodern, accessed 14/08/2013, http://amodern.net/article/the-grammatization-of-scholarship/







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