New and old tech buoy each other

00:33, Oct 30 2012

This column is supposed to be about technology and the internet, but since these days almost everything is on the internet, I am fortunate enough to have a pretty wide scope when it comes to choosing a topic.

So today, instead of talking about the release of Microsoft's Surface tablet, or Apple's release of the iPad Mini, or any other newsy topic, I'm going to write about a book I just read.

The book is called Mr Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore, written by California writer and "media inventor" Robin Sloan.

Sloan is a former Twitter employee and famously got his job at start-up cable television company Current TV by emailing its founder a new idea about digital strategy every day for a month.

Ahead of its release, he offered free galley copies for those subscribing to his email list.

The winners were those who chose the lowest unique prime numbers. He then instructed them to read the book and pass it on.


To promote the book, he stayed up for 24 hours in a New York bookstore, chatting with guests, recording the whole thing on YouTube. He's that kind of guy.

I first heard of him when he released Fish: A Tap Essay, a short essay presented as an iPhone app that you tap through.

If you've never seen it, take a few minutes now to download it  and have a read.

In it, Sloan speaks about the relentless torrent of must-see content, the difference between liking and loving something, and the passive way we usually signal our enjoyment of online media.

It's free, it takes about five minutes to tap through, and it will make you think about your web use in a new way.

After reading the essay - and quickly posting about it on Twitter if I recall - I signed up to his mailing list, captivated by his enthusiastic tone and smart ideas.

But as it turned out, this was not the first I'd seen of Sloan.

If you took any university courses in film and media or communications in the last five years, you might have been shown EPIC 2014, a video he produced back in 2004, that predicted the rise of "Googlezon" and the collapse of traditional news sources. Nearly a decade later, and aside from Google not merging with Amazon, his predictions were not far off - the news business is in freefall, and vast online websites have more information on us than we can imagine.

Anyway, back to the book. The story focuses on a San Francisco web guru who, fired from his job doing web-design for an algorithmically perfect artisinal bagel shop, takes a job at a 24-hour bookstore, and ends up digging into a centuries-old secret society in search of a secret left behind by 15th century printer Aldus Manuitius.

It's nominally an adventure book, but the plot almost seems like an excuse to revel in the possibilities that technology, both the old (books) and the new (smartphones, computers, the internet), open up in our lives.

Major plot points revolve around characters solving problems using data visualisation, the programming language Ruby, crowdsourcing service Mechanical Turk and large-scale data tool Hadoop.

Reading it is a good way to familiarise yourself with the current upper-limits of our technological powers, which turn out to be substantial.

Using cloud computing and services like Hadoop, we can recruit thousands on computers to solve immensely complicated problems, for an extremely small amount of cash. Using Mechanical Turk, we can break up a big job into thousands of smaller ones, and get real people to help out.

The book comes across as a love letter to technologies old and new.

Sloan, a lover of technology, typography, design and the internet, positioned the early printers as the equivalent of modern online-entrepreneurs, with the books they produce as ancient versions of iPhones and their apps.

It's an essential read for technology lovers and a good way to get a feel for the possibilities that current technology presents us.

I made use of some of this technology while reading the book, choosing to get it on Kindle, and switching between iOS devices and the e-reader itself (I regretted this when I found out the printed copy has a glow in the dark cover).

Midway through reading the book, curious about whether a particular plot device - that I won't spoil here - was real, I tweeted Sloan to ask him.

To my great surprise, within minutes he replied (it turned out it was not real, but was based on real-world stuff).

It was a small exchange, hardly a Justin Bieber retweet, but it was nice to see Twitter, the new technology, support my enjoyment of the novel, from a tradition centuries older.

There's been a lot of energy spent worrying about the future of books and novels in our digital age - the Arts Festival had a session set aside for such hand-wringing.

But if a futurist like Sloan is still betting on books, I'm not terribly concerned.

Now, when is he going to turn this algorithmically produced bagel idea into a reality? Perhaps I'll ask him.