Are We There Yet? Touch Press’s “The Waste Land” for iPad.

Usability studies have demonstrated that reading on tablets is more enjoyable than reading on the screen of computers and, in some cases, more than reading print. But this is for general reading: does it also apply to highly sophisticated digital scholarly editions? Is the sophistication of such editions, as we have conceived them so far, the enemy of accessibility and user-friendliness? Are tablet apps a possible way to enhance the appeal of Digital Scholarly Editions?  (Elena Pierazzo)

A month or so ago, I posted a review of the British Library’s “Shakespeare’s ‘First Folio'” app for iPad, a digital “edition” that I found to be more than a tad disappointing.  At roughly the same time that I downloaded the British Library’s “First Folio” app, I also acquired, at the particular recommendation of a friend, a book app devoted to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.  I would like now to consider this digital edition within the larger context of thinking about what such electronic texts should look like and do. In particular, I want to use this “review” as a leaping-off point for a subsequent discussion on the subject of digital texts for a more “scholarly” audience, with a particular focus upon texts for teaching. As Elena Pierazzo’s comments above might suggest, there is a great deal of potential in apps such as this to bring digital scholarly editions — whether intended for researchers or students — to the mainstream.  But are we there yet?

I teach some Eliot in a first year course, but my acquaintance with him, while more than merely passing, is probably not a great deal deeper than that of most experienced students (“official” or otherwise) of English literature. The Waste Land is, after all, arguably the defining poem of the 20th century, and in that sense it is communal property in a way that most other poems are not.  When I was a teen, and first discovered the enormous angst-potential of poetry, Eliot was The Poet, and The Waste Land  unquestionably the vital touchstone of a certain kind of moral and aesthetic “seriousness” in literary taste, so I became reasonably familiar with it at a fairly early age. And while I am more aware now than ever of how much I do not know about it, the poem still “sounds” to me as a familiar voice: comfortable and, despite all its gloom, somehow comforting.  Indeed, perhaps too much so, as the poem is for me somewhat more resonant with personal significance than is really helpful to someone who teaches it.  I looked forward to exploring the iPad app, and angsting away again to the familiar cadences of Eliot’s masterwork.

The digital "front page" of Touch Press's impressive "The Waste Land" app

The Waste Land  for iPad is published by Touch Press LLP and Faber and Faber.  The commentary that can be read alongside the poem in this app (and about which more below) have been taken, we are told, from B. C. Southam’s A Student’s Guide to the Selected Poems of T. S. Eliot, first published in 1968. The involvement of Faber and Faber in this project is a very good sign in some respects: most of Eliot’s oeuvre was, of course, first published by that house, and Eliot himself was, from 1925 onwards, an employee (and eventually director) of the company.

Screen capture of a text page of the poem with marginal notes. Some of the latter are quite extensive, and expand when touched.

How happy am I to report that my high hopes for this app were fulfilled?  Well, very happy.  In almost every regard, this is a very capable and worthwhile treatment of Eliot’s poem.  It is not, it must be said, a “scholarly” edition of The Waste Land, but as a resource for general readers it exemplifies some of the really exciting things that can be done with digital texts.  The app, which is aesthetically very well designed and attractive, includes not merely the complete text of The Waste Land, but also a complete photo facsimile of Eliot’s annotated typescript of the poem, with the handwritten comments, suggestions, and criticisms that were added by Eliot, his first wife Vivien, and Ezra Pound. The typescript (the app calls it a “manuscript,” but hey, whatever) is lightly but informatively annotated. The poem itself can be read as a “clean” text, or with extensive (and often lengthy) explanatory annotations that appear to the left of the screen:  these address everything from the specifics of the allusions that the poem makes to aspects of the poem’s composition and reception.

Audio recordings of the poem being recited are also available, and can be listened to in conjunction with a view of the text (each line is highlighted as it is read): readers include Eliot himself (in two versions, from 1933 and 1947), Alec Guinness, Ted Hughes, Viggo Mortensen (huh?), and Fiona Shaw.  Shaw’s reading is taken from a dramatic “performance” of the poem that is also included with the app as a full-length video: it is a compelling and arresting performance (if also perhaps a little problematic in some respects, as an “interpretation” of the poem).

A still from Fiona Shaw's (very) dramatic reading of the poem.

One of the more interesting and innovative facets of the app is its surprisingly generous selection of video commentaries on the poem, found in a section of the programme entitled “Perspectives,” from a variety of writers and performers that includes the poet Seamus Heaney, editor Paul Keegan, critic and editor Jim McCue, poet Craig Raine, actor and director Fiona Shaw, punk musician Frank Turner, and the novelist Jeanette Winterson. The commentaries are fascinating precisely because they provide such a diversity of perspective on the poem; as each commentator speaks, the apposite section of the poem is displayed to the right, along with an occasional image relating to the commentary. In some ways, as someone who is already reasonably familiar with the poem and its history, I found this feature of the app most appealing, as it exposed me to some rather new, interesting, and diverse perspectives on Eliot’s piece.

A final feature of the book app is a modest gallery of images relating to the poem. The appropriateness of most of these is self-evident: they include, for instance, a couple of photographic portraits of Ezra Pound, and one of Vivien Eliot, as well a photo of the opening of the poem as it appeared in The Dial, where it was first published. Others seem a little odd: there are no less than two pictures of Bob Dylan who, we are told, was much influenced by Eliot’s poetry. This struck me as the least satisfactory element of the app, as the pictures seem a little miscellaneous and somewhat disconnected from the rest of the digital edition.

The publishers of the app have produced a video highlighting many of the facets of this edition:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=rlhosnfP-Jw

Much of the context, background, and interpretation that this app provides for the poem will seem immediately familiar – the comfortable voice(s) of which I spoke – to anyone with more than a passing acquaintance of the poem.  The notes contain the expected expansions upon Eliot’s allusiveness, and upon his use of the myth of the Fisher King in the poem; there is also much on his relationship with Pound and the influence of Vivien Eliot. In this sense, the app provides little that is new.

For me, the heart of this digital edition, however, lies in the “Perspectives” section, which (as I have noted) includes the more personal reflections and comments upon the poem by people as diverse as Frank Turner and Seamus Heaney. These provide what the commentary to the poem really does not: fresh views and understandings of The Waste Land.  This I found also to be a function of audio recordings of readings of the poem: to listen to Alec Guinness’s rendition of The Waste Land  is to hear a very “different” poem, in some respects, than we get hearing Eliot, Hughes, or Shaw, reading it.  Indeed, there are instructive, if subtle, differences between Eliot’s 1933 and 1947 readings of the poem of which I had been unaware.  (I was also personally heartened by Mortensen’s reading, which I am pretty sure is not much better than my own.)  The app really does, quite literally, give us The Waste Land  in different voices.

I do have some cavils.  Eliot’s notes appear at the conclusion of the poem, which is as it should be, but some facility to leap back and forth between these and the text to which they refer would have been helpful. Ironically, consulting the notes in conjunction with the text is a relatively simple task with a printed codex; one need only flip back and forth between pages.  Doing so with this app is somewhat more laborious, and it isn’t possible to have both the text of the poem and Eliot’s own notes on the screen at the same time, although one can read the critical commentary alongside the verse text.

One might wish as well that the notes for the poem had been written afresh, rather than recycled from a now fairly ancient student guide to Eliot, even an updated one.  A awful lot has happened in Eliot scholarship in the past few decades, and it would have been nice to have had better access to such new scholarship than Southam’s book provides.  In this context, too, it’s a shame that the app does not include a brief biographical note on Eliot himself, and one in particular that glances at some of the darker aspects of his life, character, and poetry. Unsurprisingly, this app tends to be a “celebration” of the poem, and generally eschews a more probing critique of its somewhat recidivist aesthetics and ideology.

Screen shot of a page from the "manuscript" of the poem, with annotation in a panel to the lower left.

One might also have wished for a bibliography or list of books and articles for “Further Reading.”  The edition’s notes occasionally cite particular critics by name, but do not, unfortunately, reference the particular papers or monographs being cited. Finally, a minimal textual apparatus would have been helpful. There are references to textual issues in the notes and annotations, but it would have been nice to have had these details assembled in a conventional form in one place.

These issues notwithstanding, I would not hesitate to recommend this app to anyone interested in knowing this poem better, or, for that matter, to my own students. In fact, I would be delighted to assign it as a course text in my first-year English course (in which I do teach The Waste Land), and would probably devote a couple of weeks to exploring it with them, were it cheaply and easily available to all of my students.

But there, alas, lies the rub. While the app itself is quite inexpensive, the hardware required to use it is, of course, not. Sadly, too, this app is available only for the iPad, a particularly pricey little digital toy that is undoubtedly well beyond the means of the majority of my students.

I’ll conclude with a final thought on this kind of app. Touch Press’s The Waste Land and other apps of its kind are self-contained mini-programmes that “live,” for the most part, on your iPad, in isolation from the larger world of the Web.  This fact makes them more stable than online resources, and it also means that they can generally run more quickly, because they are not reliant upon information being streamed to them from an external server. But while much is to be gained by this approach, something else is lost, namely, the connectivity to a (much) larger metaverse of information and resources already existing online. This kind of connectivity is often problematic: web sites disappear, links become “dead,” and, of course, one has to continually exercise one’s judgement to determine what is “worthwhile” and trustworthy from the great mass of dross that is also to be found online. This said, that connectivity is what makes online scholarship truly dynamic, a “work in progress” rather than a neatly packaged but ultimately static book-in-a-box. Additionally, it would be good to see resources like this enable connectivity between “users,” be they students or otherwise.  Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s comments on the iBook Authors app by Apple are relevant in this context:

The textbooks that can be produced with iBooks Author and read in iBooks 2 are interactive, in the sense of an individual reader being able to work with an individual text in a hands-on fashion. They do not, however, provide for interaction amongst readers of the text, or for responses from a reader to reach the author, or, as far as I can tell so far, for connections across texts. The “book,” though multimediated, manipulable, and disembodied, is still a discrete, fairly closed object.

It is at least mildly disturbing that these new apps are happy to eschew the admittedly problematic fecundity of existence within a larger world of the Web for a safer, but ultimately more sterile existence locked within the hard drive of a tablet computer.

The Wasteland for iPad is probably just about the most attractive, sophisticated, and information-packed app for a digital book now available. But does it herald the arrival of truly scholarly works to the mainstream eBook medium?  Are we, in fact, there yet?  The answer, as I’ll discuss in my next post, is, I think, no.  But, as a major step in the right direction, this app is worthy of some study by digital editors.
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References

T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land  for iPad, ed.  Justin Badger and Charles Chabot, Touch Press LLP, and Faber and Faber, 2011. http://touchpress.com/titles/thewasteland/

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, “Reflections on the Apple Education Event,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 19 January, 2012.  http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/reflections-on-the-apple-education-event/37998 Accessed 24 February, 2012.

Elena Pierazzo, “Tablets Apps, or the future of the Scholarly Editons?” Elena Pierazzo’s Blog: Random Thoughts of a Digital Humanist with a Passion for Cookery, 27 November, 2011.  http://epierazzo.blogspot.com/2011/11/tablets-apps-or-future-of-scholarly.html Accessed 24 February, 2012.

Brian C.  Southam, A Student’s Guide to the Selected Poems of T. S. Eliot, London: Faber and Faber, 1968; 1994.

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The Great Lakes THAT Camp! What to Do, What to Do?

Great Lakes THATCamp 2012

Online registration for this year’s Great Lakes THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) at Western University (as we now apparently call ourselves) is open!

This is really exciting news, and not least of all for me.  Years and years ago, I did a “Summer Institute” course at the University of New Brunswick Fredricton on electronic texts – it was where I first cut my teeth on XML and TEI – but I have never attended a THATCamp before.  For that reason, I’m honestly not sure what to expect.  I do, however, love the premise of this kind of “unconference,” and the kind of dialogue and intellectual exchange that it is designed to encourage.

I am slated to lead a workshop on “Hypertext and Digital Archives,” which will be very cool.  I need to think of ways of making this both useful in a practical “hands-on” sense, but also flexible enough that participants are able to determine the direction that we take.  Ideas as to the best way(s) of going about that are more than welcome!

Seriously.  How does one go about this?

Morris Zapp and the Playful Fish

Stanley Fish is an important critic.

Let’s begin with that essential statement of fact, because it is a truism that seems to have escaped some of those who have responded, on Twitter and elsewhere, to his recent critique of the digital humanities with a (facetious, one hopes) assertion of Fish’s irrelevance.  While it is true that we are no longer so “surprised” by his critical insights as we once were, that is surely because, like all worthwhile criticism, they have been quietly absorbed into our understanding of what texts are, and how they work; what was once shocking now seems commonplace precisely because he made it so.  To suggest that he has nothing new to say is  a bit like accusing Shakespeare, Pope, or Tennyson of writing clichés.  He is no more “irrelevant” than, say, Matthew Arnold, or Cleanth Brooks.  He is one of the reasons why we are where we are.

For that reason, if for no other, we need to take seriously what Fish has to say about the digital humanities in three columns written for the New York Times, most recently in a post entitled “Mind Your P’s and B’s: The Digital Humanities and Interpretation.

We need, as I say, to take Fish seriously. But not, I want to suggest, too seriously.  Fish’s winking allusion in his second column to the absolutism of Morris Zapp, David Lodge’s caricature of him in the novels Changing Places and Small World, is one means of asserting his own theoretical position.  Fish readily confesses that he, like Zapp, seeks after “pre-eminence, authority and disciplinary power” by covering a topic “with such force and completeness that no other critic will be able to say a word about it.” This assertion is probably accurate enough, but it is also sufficiently arch and “meta” to leave us wondering how seriously we are meant to take it:  the very circularity and ludic quality of the allusion should alert us to the fact that Fish is being at least somewhat playful here. At the same time, while it is not too difficult to credit Fish with the overweening hubris that he seems here, and elsewhere in the columns, to exhibit, we would do well to remember that we are dealing with the critic who changed our understanding of Milton’s über-rhetorician, Satan – and should accordingly respond with a requisite degree of caution.

Fish asks questions, and provides some answers.  The questions are – and always have been – worthwhile.  What are the real contributions that digital humanities has to make to our understanding of literature?  What are the full implications of our methodologies, and of the way in which we think of texts?  And what does it mean, what are the responsibilities that accompany, being the “next big thing” in the humanities (if this is indeed so)?

His answers, on the other hand, are enormously reductive.  It is rather amusing to watch someone critical of the digital enterprise resort to binaries, but this is very much what Fish does.  The notion of a “text in process,” a term he gets from Kathleen Fitzpatrick, comes for Fish to signify that there is no text at all for digital humanists, as though we were all Heraclitus, unable ever to dip a toe into the same text twice.  Text mining becomes (if you’ll forgive the pun) a sort of critical fishing expedition, as though digital humanists never formulate hypotheses.  A focus upon “big data” becomes a negligent attitude towards detail, as though text miners never refined their data to a more granular level.  The ludic quality of such a methodology becomes a “lack of seriousness,” while the acknowledgement of the multivalence of meaning becomes, in Fish’s analysis, an acceptance of all meanings as equally “right,” with the result that the distinction between “truth” and “falsehood” is entirely elided.

And so on.  Fish’s “answers” to the legitimate questions he asks are less a critique of the digital humanities than they are a caricature of its premises and methodologies.  This is not criticism or theory:  it is satire and parody – as is again hinted at by Fish’s playful evocation of the phantom critic Morris Zapp, who is at one and the same time both a fabrication, a parody, and a real life critic. How should one respond to an assault launched by fictional comic character?

Digital humanities needs to answer Fish’s questions, but not by means of responding to his answers, for to do so would put us in the ridiculous situation of Thomas Shadwell responding to the satirical use of “Mac” in the title of Dryden’s Macflecknoe by plaintively asserting that he’d never so much as set foot in Ireland.

We don’t need to respond to Fish’s criticisms seriously – although some clarification of his characterizations might be worthwhile, if only as a public relations exercise – because Fish isn’t really concerned about critiquing the digital humanities in the first place.  These three columns (or “blog” posts, as he smirkingly labels them) aren’t about criticism, theory, the future of literary studies, immortality, religiosity, or indeed any of the issues, themes, and metaphors that Fish evokes:  they are about Stanley Fish.  Everything we need to know about Fish’s real point, and his intention, is revealed in his final paragraph:

But whatever vision of the digital humanities is proclaimed, it will have little place for the likes of me and for the kind of criticism I practice: a criticism that narrows meaning to the significances designed by an author, a criticism that generalizes from a text as small as half a line, a criticism that insists on the distinction between the true and the false, between what is relevant and what is noise, between what is serious and what is mere play. Nothing ludic in what I do or try to do. I have a lot to answer for.

If we consider Fish’s remarks in the terms of the criteria he himself sets out here, we will discover, I think, that he’s been playing with us, for Fish’s own remarks are transgressions of this mini-manifesto: they generalize where they should engage, they produce a great deal of noise and not much substance, and they are, ultimately, ludic and self-referential.

The real question for digital humanists should be whether this is a “game” that we want to play.

Is this Textbook Really Smarter than Your Prof?

I read this morning Lawrence Summer’s editorial in the New York Times with a mixture of fascination and horror.  Entitled “What You (Really) Need to Know,” the piece contains some motherhood-and-apple-pie truisms — the world is changing rapidly, students need to be “engaged” through “dynamic” educational practices, collaboration is a Good Thing, etc., etc., etc.  But I was stopped short by these two paragraphs:

New technologies will profoundly alter the way knowledge is conveyed. Electronic readers allow textbooks to be constantly revised, and to incorporate audio and visual effects. Think of a music text in which you can hear pieces of music as you read, or a history text in which you can see film clips about what you are reading. But there are more profound changes set in train. There was a time when professors had to prepare materials for their students. Then it became clear that it would be a better system if textbooks were written by just a few of the most able: faculty members would be freed up and materials would be improved, as competition drove up textbook quality.

Similarly, it makes sense for students to watch video of the clearest calculus teacher or the most lucid analyst of the Revolutionary War rather than having thousands of separate efforts. Professors will have more time for direct discussion with students — not to mention the cost savings — and material will be better presented. In a 2008 survey of first- and second-year medical students at Harvard, those who used accelerated video lectures reported being more focused and learning more material faster than when they attended lectures in person.

To begin first with Summer’s last point here:  do we really believe that “accelerated video lectures” are superior to attending lectures in person?  Or could it be, just maybe, that the other activities in which students engaged alongside the video lecture (small group discussions, for instance) were what actually made this a better learning experience, and that these were sufficiently effective to make up for the stultifyingly dull experience of watching a video lecture?

The irony of advocating passive video lecturing (and thank goodness he doesn’t “mention the cost savings,” because that of course has no bearing on his argument, right?) in the same editorial in which “Active learning classrooms” are lauded seems lost on Summers.  I can well imagine how a digital lecture, fully integrated with interactive and dynamic elements and features, might produce an excellent learning experience, but that’s not quite the same thing as plunking students down in front of a video of a talking head (however brilliant a head it may be) discussing the causes of the American Revolution.

However, I primarily want to address Summers’ first point about textbooks, which he suggests have been “written by just a few of the most able” pedagogues and scholars.  To begin with, I’m far from sure that this is really an accurate characterization of the way in which textbooks have been produced, but for the moment I’ll accept the premise that current practice is to rely upon the “excellence” of our textbook authors and editors so as to free ourselves up for other “more important” things.

Summers is clearly thinking about, even if he doesn’t directly mention, the new iBooks Author application from Apple;  a link within the paragraph refers readers to an index of NYT stories on that tool.  As is suggested by his segue to video lectures, Summers believes that the “old model” of textbook production is a good thing:  let’s have the “most able” in our disciplines produce the texts, just as we should leave our lecturing to the best lecturers.  Now, however, the “most able” can create these textbooks in iBooks Author, and thereby produce more engaging and interactive texts for our students.

This approach, this acquiescence to the notion that we should let the “most able” build our textbooks for us, seems to me to miss out on an important element of the potential power of iBooks Author, or at least of what that tool represents.

How many of us are truly happy with our textbooks?  I take some care to choose anthologies for my course that are the best available (bearing in mind, however, cost to the student as well), but I still find myself in the not-infrequent position of apologizing to the class for the text.  An error here, an omission there, and on occasion a glaringly awful misprint — I’ve had to direct students’ attention to all of these.  On one memorable occasion, my students were thrown into confusion because a very popular textbook we were using had managed to run parts of two Seamus Heaney poems together, producing a sort of inadvertent monstrous poetic pastiche.

And of course there is the question of availability: I often have to drop from a syllabus a literary text that I’d love to teach simply because it is not available in a cheap modern edition.

Surely part of the appeal of easy-to-use tools like iBooks Author is that they can, in theory, allow us to create our own customized teaching texts?

By this, I don’t mean to suggest that we need to reinvent the wheel every time we teach a course:  I am, by and large, still pretty happy with the Broadview Anthology of Restoration and 18th-Century Literature as the core text for my survey course covering that period, despite some serious cavils here and there.  But what would be really great is an easy way to build on such core textbooks with custom-built texts that allow me to teach literary works or contextual materials not otherwise easily available.  It would be wonderful to enable a more engaging, complete, and dynamic contextualization of the ones that are already in the prefabricated textbook.  So, if I want to teach Daniel Defoe’s The Shortest Way with Dissenters (and I do), or John Dryden’s “Preface” to Fables, Ancient and Modern, neither of which are in the Broadview Anthology, I can do so by creating my own eText versions of these, complete with any media or contextual materials that I think might be worthwhile. Increasingly, textbooks are being offered to us in “modular” form by publishers; what I am suggesting is that we can build some of these modules ourselves.

Such an approach to course texts would, of course, demand a fair amount of work from instructors, and would, as things currently stand, disadvantage those who lack the technical skills to produce their own digital texts. But what I think that iBooks Author potentially represents is a significant move towards a day when there are cheap and easy-to-use tools available to build just such custom modules.  Imagine, for instance, a web site into which someone with the most basic technological knowledge could simply input text and multimedia content, click “Submit,” and receive an ePub-compliant HTML5-encoded text (and maybe XML too) as output?

We’re not there yet, but surely iBooks Author gives us glimpses of a future in which we can all become as smart as our textbooks, because our textbooks are built by us.

PIPA, SOPA, and Coffa; Or, It Didn’t Work in the 17th Century Either.

My attention was directed a few days ago by a friend (via Twitter) to a post on Common-Place, a history-themed blog sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society.  The post, by Joseph M. Adelman, is entitled “By Securing the Copies,” and draws some interesting parallels between two 18th-century American cases concerned with copyright and censorship, and the war that has been raging over SOPA and PIPA, as well as the recent judgement by the US Supreme Court that returns the protections of copyright to foreign works that had been in the public domain:

Putting modern debates into context is important. Laws restricting the circulation of information and publications have not been warmly received. Copyright has been an instrument to limit that circulation. And lastly, it was never intended to be permanent or retroactive.

The parallels that Adelman draws between SOPA/PIPA and the Stamp Act of 1765 reminded me of a rather different parallel to these two proposed bills that had occurred to me a few days ago.  In terms of social phenomena, probably the most comparable thing that 17th-century Britain had to the modern web was its coffee houses.  I have long thought that there were interesting parallels to be drawn between the function of these two phenomena; in fact, I wrote a few years ago an abortive paper (titled “You Have Been Poked,” or something equally inane) that treated coffee houses by way of analogy with online social media.  I should probably consider resuscitating that one.  Or not.

A coffee house, ca. 1674, from "A Brief Description of the Excellent Vertues of that Sober and Wholesome Drink, Called Coffee"

“Coffa” was an exotic Turkish drink viewed, initially, with some suspicion by patriotic Christian Englishmen, but it was a matter of only a few years following the erection of the first coffee house in London, sometime between 1652 and 1654, that similar establishments sprang up all over the city.  Restoration coffee houses were, first and foremost, social venues, and they differed from modern coffee shops in that customers sat not at small tables that could accommodate only a few friends, but on long benches that forced interaction with a diverse and broad variety of other patrons.  Conversation was general, and social interactions promiscuous.  As one broadside dating from 1674 put it:

First, Gentry, Tradesmen, all are welcome hither,
And may without Affront sit down Together:
Pre-eminence of Place, none here should Mind,
But take the next Seat that he can find:
Not need any, if Finer Persons come,
Rise up for to assigne to them his Room
(A Brief Description)

These lines suggest (even if they somewhat exaggerate) the degree to which coffee houses functioned as social sites that leveled or even “democratized” the highly-stratified society of late 17th-century Britain. In practice, coffee houses served as hubs in the literary and news networks of the time: they were clearinghouses for gossip, rumour, scandal, political news and discussion. More than this, however, they also functioned as dissemination centres for literature of all kinds, including manuscript poetry, newssheets, periodicals, and printed codices.  When news, poetry, or gossip went “viral” in the Restoration period, it was mostly usually through the agencies of the coffee houses.

This function of the coffee houses did not go unnoticed by the government of Charles II, which was concerned that these were becoming centres for the articulation of anti-government sentiment and even sedition.  In 1671 Joseph Williamson, who functioned essentially as chief intelligence officer for the government, opined “Pull down . . . coffee houses, and nothing can be more to the establishment of the government” (CSPD Charles II 11: 581), while Thomas Player, one of Williamson’s agents, commented in 1673 that “These sober clubbs produce nothing but scandalous and censorious discourses”  (Christie 2: 68).

The government had good reason to be concerned.  Opposition to the King’s ministers and his policies had been growing steadily since the mid-1660s.  In 1672, the same year as a Stop of the Exchequer signaled the government’s dire financial situation, Charles issued a Declaration of Indulgence, extending religious freedom to nonconformists; it was perceived as an attempt to sanction Roman Catholicism, and was so fiercely contested that Charles was forced to withdraw it the next year.  Parliament riposted in 1673 with a “Test Act,” which required of all office holders an oath disavowing the “truth” of transubstantiation, the immediate effect of which was to out the King’s brother and heir the Duke of York (the future James II) as a convert to Roman Catholicism.  This revelation sent shock waves of alarm through the kingdom.  The Third Dutch War, meanwhile, had concluded in a most unsatisfactory way in 1674, and rumours were beginning to circulate about the “secret” provisions of the 1670 Treaty of Dover, by which Charles II received secret funding from Louis XIV, thereby enabling him to rule without the assistance of Parliament.

By 1675, dissent had grown to alarming proportions, and was reflected in a growing tide, not merely of seditious talk, but  of anti-government satire (mostly in manuscript form) and pamphleteering.  And the focus for this increasingly vocal dissent was, as the government was beginning to recognize, the coffee houses.

At last, on 29 December 1675, the government moved, issuing A Proclamation for the Suppression of Coffee-Houses.  The proclamation took a number of swipes at coffee houses, but in particular asserted that they were places where “divers False, Malitious and Scandalous Reports are devised and spread abroad, to the Defamation of His Majesties Government, and to the Disturbance of the Peace and Quiet of the Realm” (Proclamation for the Suppression).  All such establishments were ordered closed by 10 January, 1675/6.

The government’s move to shut down coffee houses caused, understandably, a great deal of consternation.  One private newsletter, written little more than a week before the measures announced in the proclamation were to take effect, noted that there had grown “a mutinous condition in this towne upon the account of coffee-howses” (Hatton Newsletter,  1 January, 1676, quoted in Ellis 92).  One probable reason for the sharp public reaction may lie in the relative effectiveness of the government’s measures to control the flow of information in printed form:  with the assistance of the Stationers’ Company, Roger L’Estrange, the Licenser of the Press, had done a fairly effective job of controlling the conventional press.  For this reason, most expressions of public dissent were circulated in manuscript, and the coffee houses had an absolutely central function in that process. Shutting down the coffee houses would have seriously fettered a public discourse that was already very tightly managed by the government.

Meanwhile, those with an economic stake in the coffee houses had began to mobilize. Led by Thomas Garraway, the proprietors of coffee houses in London issued a petition against the suppression on or about January 5. Two days later, Garraway, a “Mr. Taylor,” and Sir John Duncombe, the Chancellor of the Exchequor, but here acting as spokesman for the coffee houses, met with the Privy Council in Westminster to present their case. As Markman Ellis has noted, they argued that the proclamation caused undue hardship to law-abiding and tax-paying merchants:

The coffee-men cast themselves as merchants who obediently, legally and merely sold coffee. It was for this purpose, they reminded everyone, that they held the ‘licences’ from the magistrates, guaranteeing the payment of their Excise dutes. The law, they reasoned, recognized their place within the commercial world. As they further observed, the coffee trade paid a great deal of money in taxes and their trade was a lucrative source of revenue for the King. All this, they argued, was jeopardized by the proclamation. Furthermore, the proposed suppression of their trade would leave these poor and hard-working tradesmen in some considerable hardship: they would have great stocks of coffee left unsold, the price of which would collapse. (94)

"An Additional Proclamation Concerning Coffee-Houses."  London, 1676.

"An Additional Proclamation Concerning Coffee-Houses." London, 1676.

In the face of a mutinous public, legal and political opinion that suggested that the proclamation’s revocation of licences was unworkable or illegal, and pressure from the major “stakeholders” in the trade, the Privy Council began to reconsider  its position.  Within little more than a week of the original proclamation, on 8 January, the government issued a new Additional Proclamation Concerning Coffee-Houses. The new proclamation effectively revoked the order to close coffee houses by extending permissions for these establishments for an additional six months.  (As events transpired, the 6-month deadline passed without any further action from the government.)

However, the proclamation did enact new conditions to which all proprietors were to be subject. The coffee house owner was directed to “use his utmost endeavour to prevent and hinder all Scandalous Papers, Books or Libels concerning the Government, or the Publick Ministers thereof, from being brought into his House, to be there Read, Perus’d or Divulg’d,” as well as to suppress discussion within his premises that might similarly be said to be a “Scandalous” reflection upon the government. What is more, proprietors were directed to report instances of the above to “one of His Majesties Principal Secretaries of State, or to some one of His Majesties Justices of the Peace” within two days of its appearance in the coffee house. As surety for this behaviour, coffee houses were held in recognisance to the sum of £500.

This last provision is particularly evocative of the measures proposed by SOPA and PIPA.  Like those abortive and largely unlamented attempts to control and censor the internet, the Additional Proclamation would have called upon those who most fervently opposed the law — in this case, the coffee house owners themselves — to enforce it.  Similarly, PIPA and SOPA, as some have observed, would have required Google, Facebook, and other opponents of these bills to police them.  How effective, one wonders, would they have been at doing so?

That this kind of self-regulation would have been largely unworkable is suggested by the actual experience of the coffee houses in the decades following the government’s proclamations:  there is very little evidence that these venues became any less “seditious” than before.  Indeed, by the summer of 1676, the coffee houses were once again the focus of political dissent, as the Earl of Shaftesbury and Duke of Buckingham began to employ them to organize opposition to the King’s administration.  Their success in producing a coherent oppositional voice, one which would eventually coalesce as the Whig party, is in some measure testimony to the role of coffee houses as conduits and network hubs for the exchange of ideas and information.  And the survival of the role of coffee houses in fulfilling just this function is compelling evidence that, even if it is not necessarily true that “information wants to be free,” it is certainly the case that attempts to muzzle or control decentralized information networks are likely to prove difficult at best.

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Print References

Christie, W. D., ed.  Letters Addressed from London to Sir Joseph Williamson While Plenipotentiary at the Congress of Cologne in the Years 1673 and 1674.  Camden Society N.S. 8 and 9.  2 Vols.  London:  Camden Society, 1874.

Charles II. A Proclamation for the Suppression of Coffee-Houses.  London, 1675.

—–. An Additional Proclamation Concerning Coffee-Houses.  London, 1676.

Greenwood, Paul(?), A Brief Description of the Excellent Vertues of that Sober and Wholesome Drink, Called Coffee, and Its Incomparable Effects in Preventing or Curing Most Diseases Incident to Humane Bodies. London, 1674.

Ellis, Markman.  The Coffee-House: A Cultural History. 2004. London: Phoenix, 2005.

Public Record Office.  Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, of the Reign of Charles II.   Eds. Mary Anne Everett Green, et al.  28 Vols.  London:  Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1860-1947.

Apple iBooks Author vs. ePub3: What If We Let the Tail Wag the Dog Just This Once?

John Gruber has an interesting new post on Daring Fireball in which responds to criticism of Apple’s new iBooks Author file format by Daniel Glazman, Co-chairman of the W3C CSS Working Group.  Glazman dislikes the fact that Apple has extended the CSS for that format beyond the standards set by ePub3:  “All in all, Apple has worked entirely behind the curtains here. If someone tells you that iBooks format is EPUB3, don’t believe it. It’s not EPUB3, it’s only based on EPUB3.”

The result — and I’ll take his word for this, as I don’t myself have access to the iBooks Author tool — is that “[b]ecause of these extensions, editing or browsing the html documents with a regular wysiwyg editor (BlueGriffon or DreamWeaver for instance) or a browser (Firefox, Chrome or even Safari) shows a total mess on screen. It’s not readable, it’s not usable, it’s not editable. Just forget it, Apple (re-)invented the Web totally incompatible with the Web.”

Glazman enumerates the nature of the particular extensions to CSS (and hence to ePub3):

  1. Template-based layout including special areas (gutter)
  2. Extended underlining
  3. Ability to control the size of each column and column gap in a multi-column layout
  4. something equivalent to Adobe’s Regions and Exclusions.

Now, again, I don’t have iBook Author, so I can’t speak with much assurance about what these extensions “mean,” except to say that they sound like rather good things.

Gruber’s response to Glazman is pretty unsympathetic, but both logical and reasonable.  Glazman feels that Apple should have proposed these extensions to the W3C CSS Working Group before implementing them — an unsurprising opinion coming from Co-chairman of that committee.  Gruber responds that

. . . if Apple had taken this route, the books generated by iBooks Authortoday wouldn’t have any of the layout features Glazman cited above. The iBooks format isn’t different just for the sake of being different, it’s different for the sake of being better — not better in the future, after a W3C review period and approval, but better today, in the textbooks you can download and read in iBooks right now.

Now, I’m a strong believer in open standards, and in standards compliance.  And I don’t particularly like, even if I understand, the thinking behind changes to standards that make a particular format proprietary rather than open.

That said . . . Apple has apparently produced a beautiful product here that employs format features that are better than could be produced through rigid compliance with ePub standards.

So what would happen if, instead of merely complaining about Apple getting the jump on standards-compliant eBook publishers or undercutting the attempt to produce such standards, the co-chair of the W3C CSS Working Group had additionally said something like:  “But wow.  They shouldn’t have done it this way, but we’re glad they did, because now we can see that these are extensions that should be added to the ePub specifications!  We can all benefit from Apple’s decision to innovate and push the envelope here!”

Even better — what if those creating the open standards for things like ePub3 were to take the same kind of imaginative approach, and had the same kind of concern for the overall excellence of interface design, that Apple’s designers and engineers apparently have?  What if the w3C CSS Working Group were itself producing these kinds of forward-looking innovations, and in so doing making it more attractive to be standards-compliant?

Wouldn’t that be cool?

Outrage from Mainz over Apple iBook 2 “Innovations”: “We Did It First!”

(Mainz) In the wake of Apple’s important and much-anticipated announcement yesterday of iBooks 2 comes some sharp criticism from the printing shop of Johannes Gutenberg, where it is being claimed that Apple’s new etext interface has copied many innovative features first introduced there.

“I can’t say I’m entirely surprised,” said Peter Schöffer, Gutenberg’s spokesman and CFO, “The Scheißerei at Apple have been trying to buy out our patents for 2 years now.”

Johannes Gutenberg

Johannes Gutenberg: "iBook-schmieBook!"

Schöffer expressed particular concern over Apple’s new “page finding” feature, which allows users to go directly to a given page in the digital book simply by entering a “page number.”  “Look at this!” Schöffer fumes, “When a user interfaces with one of our printed books, all he needs to do to find a particular page is flip through the leaves!  No clicks, no entering numbers:  if you can count, you can find it!  They copied us, but they did it badly.”

The CFO also expressed anger at another feature of iBooks 2, the ability to “bookmark” particular pages for quick and easy later reference.  “You’ve been able to do that with our books for years!” snorts Schöffer as he demonstrates by turning down a corner of a paper page, closing the book, and then reopening it again instantly to the marked page.  “No clickety-click needed!” he notes.

Schöffer was not entirely dismissive of iBook 2 innovations however.  “That index thingy they have – we may want to introduce that feature to our own books eventually too,” he chortles mischievously.

Apple is being fairly quiet about the allegations coming from Mainz, but Apple SVP Phil Schiller did have this to say when we contacted him:  “I think it’s inaccurate to say that we ‘stole’ these features from Gutenberg.  I mean, “pages” – well, manuscript codices have had those forever.  I think it’s more accurate to say that we broke into the scriptorium late one night, only to find that the place had already been burgled by Gutenberg.”

Schöffer was less forthcoming about rumours that the Gutenberg press is looking to sue Apple for patent infringement over their “iBook Author” tool.  “Well, we’ll see.  Our lawyers are still looking into that one,” says Schöffer, patting the wooden-framed handpress standing beside him.