Article categories: Issue 65
July 6th, 2009

Paper publishing will never be the same again. It is deeply affected by a dual contradictory need. On one hand, real-time updating is pervading the printed space with various technologies, and on the opposite, the need for something reliable and not dependent on the lack of tcp/ip waves or electricity is becoming more precious for a generation stuck too close to their unstable laptops. Various disembodiment of paper is practiced on the net and in connected devices, but the immobility (and reassuring stability) of the printed page is growing and finding new customized ways of production and consumption. Cellulose and electricity are not married, yet, but their vital relationship maybe an opportunity for a new independent pervasive publishing wave.

The persistance of paper; the search to stabilise pixel
Announced repeatedly since the late 90’s there’s a perpetually upcoming technology that pretends to substitute paper. It’s the so called ‘electronic paper’, ‘e-paper,’ or ‘electronic ink’, a special kind of display made not by pixels and light, but by electrically charged micro-balls (a sort of pixels if you want) that can turn black or white. One of the few challenges is its promises is to reduce the clutter in your bookshelf. But, what is the price of this ‘promise’? To me it’s similar to the never realized ‘paperless’ office, advertised from the 80’s by the personal computer industry. It’s a promise of virtualisation, disembodiment of a heavy physicality you’d like to reduce to have more. And it thrills to own more and more content, because digitally, it’s easy to copy, share or simply store. This is one of the arguments behind the Amazon Noir project I’ve developed with Ubermorgen and Paolo Cirio. Paolo Cirio coded a software that stressed the extreme limits the ‘search inside the book’ feature, being able to obtain all the text though thousands of queries and then reconstructing the whole searched book. This is the actualization of all the parts of the book that can be searched. It’s the ‘imagined book’ made real, the virtual bulimic appetite for texts satisfied. But, no digital hardware or culture will save us from the weight of real books and things, the ‘reality showdown’. Paper is more persistent.

The web space of magazines; turning pages with the mouse
The paper publishing industry has wondered what to do with the web from the very beginning. Independent publishers have been thinking about it earlier than a cover of Factsheet Five from 1995 proves. The ‘yellow pages’ of zines dedicated an issue to the web and its consequences on the zine world. The cover title was ‘Paper or Plastic?’ and this comic, perfectly embodied the fears of the traditional zine world through a bold younger ‘silicon’ bully character. Today there’s no more doubt that the electronic space par excellence is the web and the whole publishing industry seems to still be wondering how to exploit this medium. They established websites with some (or more) content taken from the printed edition and various online shops aimed at improved sales. The latest strategy is a controversial one; giving way pdf files of glossy entertainment magazines, if you register on specialized websites where you may find yourself not paying financially, but in personal data for the latest Business Week, Macworld, or Playboy issue. The industry is dramatically improving ‘distribution’ and ‘readership’, two of the golden keywords of commercial publishing. This strategy seems to be borrowed from the p2p scheme; the better the distribution (even if some of that is for free) the better the sales. And this could be an efficient response to the so called ‘Digital Shoplifting’ of copyrighted images that used to be quite popular in Japan; a social phenomenon where young woman took pictures of trends in fashion magazines with their mobile phones and then shared and discussed the pictures with friends. Giving away content is a publishing habit that has been anticipated by the underground design phenomenon. A substantial number of free electronic magazines have been produced in this field. These so-called pdf-zines (i.e. Magnify) show off creativity, have affinity among different design groups, aesthetic experiments, content simply not worthy of commercial magazines, or too controversial for them. It’s very important that they were not interactive at all, not exploiting any characteristics of the electronic medium apart from the potential infinite duplication and distribution. Sure enough they applied to these pdf files the same graphic and production standards of the paper medium. A never born paper product; thrown off to the always free and crowded web channels.

Print-on-demand; Photocopy machine of the new millennium (coming soon)
The need for physical print could be said to be ‘instinctual’. How paper can still trigger our inner instinct to read is at the core of a 2006 computer art installation, the ‘Pamphlet‘ by Helmut Smits, which consists of a laptop, software, and a printer placed on the edge of a window. Users type a message on the laptop and by pressing ‘send’ a pamphlet is printed and dropped from the 10th floor by the printer. The falling paper and resulting ‘pamphlet’ on the street symbolizes the relatively short distance from the personal production to the public enjoyment of a printed product, and how the traditional product parameters have been disrupted. The fascination of take-away paper is also seen in newspapers that are starting to stretch their role and nature with downloadable and printable last minute editions. These are highly reliant on one key factor; the updating time. They are designed to be read offline, and therefore enjoyed with a relative calm, but with the most stretched and feverish time of production. This is part of a larger need: to put the virtual and real-time produced content out of the screen to affect real life or be enjoyed in it.

This is the field where another technology steps in; print-on-demand. The process is very simple: you produce a pdf file of a magazine or a book, a print-on-demand online service then charges you for adapting the files to the production chain of a high-resolution digital copier and you then order the number of copies you want including those to sell on the web. This process drastically reduces the costs of printing and distributing, letting the author focus on production. This is a potentially big opportunity for independent publishing, avoiding the usual initial costs of printing and gives every publisher the opportunity to sell through the web without prior technical production knowledge. I partially use it to save on the cost of Neural and on producing art books for some personal projects (i.e. Amazon Noir). It would, in the end be essentially what the photocopy machines has represented in the 80’s and 90’s a cheap opportunity to print and distribute content in a stable, easy, standardised and physically enjoyable format. That’s what paper still is.

Alessandro Ludovico
Alessandro Ludovico is a media critic and editor in chief of ‘Neural Magazine’ (Honorary Mention, Prix Ars Electronica 2004). He is the author of: ‘Virtual Reality Handbook’ (1992), ‘Internet Underground.Guide’ (1995), ‘Future Digital Sounds’ (2000) and co-edited ‘Mag.Net Reader’ (2006). He’s one of the founding contributors of the Nettime community and one of the founders of the ‘Mag.Net’ (Electronic Cultural Publishers organization). He is also an adviser for the Documenta 12’s Magazine Project. He teaches ‘Computer Art’ and ‘Interface Aesthetics’ at the Academy of Art in Carrara. Since 2005 he collaborates with Ubermorgen and P.Cirio on projects such as ‘Google Will Eat Itself’ (Honorary Mention Prix Ars Electronica 2005, Rhizome Commission 2005, nomination Prix Transmediale 2006) and ‘Amazon Noir’ (1st prize Stuttgarter Filmwinter 2007, Honorary Mention Share Prize 2007) projects.

Read More

Helmut Smits ‘Pamphlet’

iRex, ILiad,

Amazon Noir,

Quentin Sommerville, Japan’s ‘digital shoplifting’ plague

Neural Magazine –

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One Response to “The Persistence of Paper”

  1. [...] All presenters reflected on open source ideology in respect to their specialised field. Under the banner of Andre Breton’s famous words, ‘one publishes to find comrades’, Alessandro Ludovico introduced participants to modes of collaboration and networking in respect to independent and online publishing. Alessandro drew on the invaluable experience of 14 years independent publishing of Neural: hactivism, digital culture and media arts, encouraging participants to workshop an open source magazine including questioning production models and distribution. Alessandro also discussed printed verses online publication. [...]