A lengthy gap in my postings is over. Last year I was in a head-on car collision; this halted most everything in my life, excepting my life – subsequently I have been variously edited by surgeons, loved and cared for by my wife, and twice learned how to walk again. The most recent surgery was three weeks ago, to remove 11 screws and 2 plates from my heel bone (calcaneus) – this has halted progressive metal reaction rheumatism spreading through all my joints. The docs want to do two more edits on my bones; I may be ready to be well enough done. Stay tuned.
Rob Tow is hard to kill.

Hard to kill

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Little has changed in “The News” since 1624

Early newspapers don’t appear all that different from today’s tabloids. This is one of my favorite examples, from the very earliest period of newsprint – a front page that screams its sensation out with text and image that even the illiterate can parse.

Note the combination of the broadside image and the verbal story in contiguity within the larger surface of the page – the newly invented large high quality display that, in McLuhanist terms consumed the two pre-existing media as its content to create a new medium. Also note the primitive advert at the bottom from the printer, for himself and the publisher.

I have to smile at the really bad “ransom note” typography – another thing that hasn’t changed at all!

  • Image from A History of News, by Mitchell Stephens, 1988.
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The worst example of history writing I have yet read

From Debt: The First 5,000 Years, by David Graeber (page 96):

The greater the need to improvise the more democratic the cooperation [within companies] tends to become. Inventors have always understood this, start-up capitalists frequently figure it out, and computer engineers have recently rediscovered the principle … Apple Computers is a famous example: it was founded by (mostly Republican) computer engineers who broke from IBM in Silicon Valley in the 1980s, forming little democratic circles of twenty to forty people with their laptops in each other’s garages.

The embolded sentence has seven errors of fact in it. Can you find them all?


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Beginning a discourse on “Why “interactive tv” failed for decades… based on the invention of Newspapers

Starting in the 1960s there were a long series of utterly failed attempts to create “interactive television”. A structuralist analysis, based on history and McLuhanistic insight, tells us why they all failed – and why there is now an explosion of interactivity that includes video, but does not insert into video. We find out why by looking into history.

Gutenberg began by simply making bibles. He made them cheaper, mass produced, and beautiful. But they were they same basic user experience as hand illuminated crafted books. They were cheaper, gorgeous, and multiple. Others took his technology, and made new things.

The big significant new thing was the invention of the newspaper.

News-letters had been around for some time – Rennnaisance hand written and copied “news of the day”. They were popular, and expensive. Woodcuts also had been around – most popularly, Dürer’s. And the “hedge bibles” of illustrated stories for illiterate priests.

What came suddenly into being was the ability to rapidly (shortening the standard delay of information gathering and production) produce large (a new high high quality cheap display surface)  “thing” that was able to simultaneously present to the viewer pictures, letters, narrative stories, and advertisements. Broadsides, dense text, stuff that people consumed from desire, need, and, want which increased the agency of politics, commerce, and entertainment. The newspaper. And the political pamphlet.

The newspaper “ate” the broadside, the newsletter, the story. These all floated around independently on the surface – the display surface – and existed in new relationships to themselves, their producers, and the consumers.

Now we have the same thing, redux; video is existing “floating around” inside a new environ – more than just a better display surface, but that counts a lot.

The topology of the new environ has many dimensions.



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Rapid change is hard to see when you are in the middle of living it

Even rapid change is hard to see when you are in the middle of living it. Book publishing and book stores are an example; most retailers are going the way of Tower Records – only the used market will be left, aside from niche “pretty books”. Actually, this started with the porn industry – electronic media killed the market for pocket book porn, leaving only magazines. Right now the word publishing industry is shedding the infrastructure and costs of moving atoms; the only atoms involved are the tablets and cell phones – backed by stores that are servers, vast analysis of individual buying habits, and recommendation systems.

The single most brilliant innovation was Amazon’s enabling individuals to “scribble on the bookshelf” – making browsing their storefront a structurally more powerful and richer experience than perusing the physical shelves of a bookstore. No helpful clerk can approach the emergent collective in guidance.

In the next several posts I will explore some structural elements of the history of publishing, starting with the three elements of Gutenberg’s press – moveable type, oil based heavy metal inks, and large high quality display surface – the new technology of paper. A small N of innovations put together produced a new medium, which, in McLuhanistic terms proceeded to be a new medium by consuming the content of a small N of previous media – the letter, the story, and the broadside image.

A similar event is happening now, with this new thing we don’t quite have a good word for (it’s not just the internet); I’ll delve into this.

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