This year, much of the talk about the New York Art Book Fair seems to be centered on the Fair itself. Fueling some of this talk, whether expressly stated or not, is a simple question: how, in the midst of one of the most historic economic recessions on record, as the media outlets decry the final hour of the book, was last year’s Fair the biggest yet? And why does it seem that this year’s Fair may be even bigger still?
Against the backdrop of the recession and the destabilization of the book there are three additional factors that have a bearing on the Fair’s ever-increasing reach: the graphic design postgraduate program that defines a thesis book as its culminating project; the design social scene that functions a bit more like a rock scene, celebrating the making and distribution of new work over the more professionalized goals of acquiring and servicing clients; and the temporary or “pop-up” store that transforms the sometimes solitary act of buying into a networked, participatory, and collective event.
Smart people often change their minds, but it’s hard to admit you’re wrong, especially when you make judgements for a living. The effortlessly brilliant technologist/critic Clay Shirky recently admitted to a mistake in his judgement of the #amazonfail incident. I think he did a marvelous job explaining how he was wrong, and why, and what his mistake means about this case. Along the way, he also peppers his essay with some keen insights, including this one:
The problems [Amazon has] with labeling and handling contested categories is a problem with all categorization systems since the world began. Metadata is worldview; sorting is a political act. […] No one gets cataloging “right” in any perfect sense, and no algorithm returns the “correct” results. We know that, because we see it every day, in every large-scale system we use. No set of labels or algorithms solves anything once and for all; any working system for showing data to the user is a bag of optimizations and tradeoffs that are a lot worse than some Platonic ideal, but a lot better than nothing.
Jonathan Hoefler (whose surname, fittingly, could include not one but two consecutive ligatures, œ and ﬂ) recently pointed to Louis von Ahn’s reCAPTCHA project, which I think is pretty incredible. A CAPTCHA is one of those graphically-distorted bits of text you’re asked to enter before submitting a comment or form on the internet to prove you’re a human being and not some bot or wayward spammer. But reCAPTCHA repurposes that intelligence by not only filtering out bots but also filtering in random words from scanned texts that humans can decipher but computers can’t. Von Ahn explains, “Each new word that cannot be read correctly by OCR is given to a user in conjunction with another word for which the answer is already known. The user is then asked to read both words. If they solve the one for which the answer is known, the system assumes their answer is correct for the new one.” 60 million CAPTCHAs per day x 10 seconds per CAPTCHA = About 150,000 of labor per day. As von Ahn suggests, “What if we could make positive use of this human effort? […] Currently, we are helping to digitize books from the Internet Archive and old editions of the New York Times.” Clay Shirky is definitely onto something.
“Three weeks ago, [Evan] Guttman went on a quest to retrieve a friend’s lost cellphone, a quest that has now ended with the arrest of a 16-year-old on charges of possessing the missing gadget, a Sidekick model with a built-in camera that sells for as much as $350. But before the teenager was arrested, she was humiliated by Mr. Guttman in front of untold thousands of people on the Web, an updated version of the elaborate public shamings common in centuries past.” NYT on a cell phone lost and found. More thoughts on the case from Clay Shirky here at NPR’s On the Media.