May 3, 2017
This cybernetically distributed unprintable e-book needs your help!
by Ian Dreiblatt
It’s always, sometimes fun to mark a birthday, and today’s is a humdinger: today, spam emails turn thirty-nine.
It’s true! The first-ever unsolicited mass marketing email was sent out on May 3, 1978, when Gary Thuerk, a marketer with the Digital Equipment Corporation, sent a message to hundreds of west coast addresses via ARPANET, the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network that was a key predecessor of the modern internet. The message let recipients know that the company would “BE GIVING A PRODUCT PRESENTATION OF THE NEWEST MEMBERS OF THE DECSYSTEM-20 FAMILY; THE DECSYSTEM-2020, 2020T, 2060, AND 2060T.” (It was big and welcome news when, several years later, Max Headroom finally invented typing in lower-case.)
Now, of course, we live in an world plagued and bewildered by cybernetic communications. But at least these may be getting more interesting. At the Guardian, Richard Lea has recently blogged about A Universe Explodes, a new e-book by Tea Uglow, who lives in Australia and works as a creative director at Google Labs in Sydney.
A Universe Explodes is a digital-only book, produced in an “edition” of one hundred unique, trackable copies. As a reader moves through it, they’re required first to dedicate their copy to another person, and then to proceed by deleting two words from, and adding one word to, each page; when this has been done to every page of the book, it can be passed on to a next user. This means that each of the hundred original copies will be immediately, and increasingly, different from each other copy, and that each copy will grow shorter with each user, until it shrinks to a single word per page (which may or not have appeared in the original version). It’s published by Books at Play, a company that says it “makes books powered by the magic of the internet,” and it tracks users’ emendations via Blockchain, the decentralized database that powers bitcoin.
When I went to check it out, one edition, most recently edited by Sheila Heti, began like this:
I reach up to the cupboard and extract a white ceramic bowl into which I pour a serving and a half of muesli. Onto this I inexpertly slice a banana and pour some low-fat natural yoghurt. I eat my muesli in just under two minutes and my toast magically pops as I hoist the bowl to my lips to slurp down dregs of oats and sugar.
So far, most of the hundred copies appear not to have been edited at all, and those that have have only passed through one or two sets of hands; other editions I found had “the lowest cupboard,” “stale muesli,” “a brown banana,” and so forth.
The project’s spiritual cousins would seem to include the book that launched the Oulipo, Raymond Queneau’s 1961 collection Cent mille milliards de poèmes (“A Hundred Thousand Million Poems”), an assemblage of ten fourteen-line poems with identical meters and rhyme schemes; by cutting across the book with scissors between the lines of the poems, a reader creates a kind of analogue random poetry generator, which does indeed offer 100,000,000,000,000 formally perfect sonnets. Another worthy ancestor would be Tristano, a novel conceived in 1966 by Italian writer, early adopter of computer-based composition, and Melvillean extraordinaire Nanni Balestrini, and finally realized decades later. In that book, a novel that riffs on the story of Tristan and Isolde, the order of the fifteen pairs of paragraphs that comprise each chapter is generated randomly for each copy, so that no two printed versions are the same.
But Uglow’s book differs in a few important ways: where Queneau invites a reader to recombine basic material, Uglow requires not just recombination but re- and decomposition; where Balestrini’s work could not be practically realized until digital technology made it possible, Uglow’s is conceptually unthinkable in print. Queneau invited his readers to collaborate; Uglow enlists them to further the text’s disintegration. Balestrini destabilized the idea of a single, definitive edition his work; Uglow has made instability fundamental even to the individual copies of hers.
The project does seem short on users, though, and it won’t thrive without them. So c’mon guys, let’s get on this! Think of it as a birthday present for your spam folder.
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.