The world according to Meanland: the top ten things we covered this year (in no particular order)

Do you recall when Meanjin quarterly and Overland magazine announced (see A joint communique from somewhere in Meanland) their 2010 collaboration, Meanland or ‘Reading in a time of change’? Back then they promised:

This joint project aims to create a constructive dialogue on how we, and future generations, will read. It will explore the challenges and opportunities facing literary culture in the twenty-first century—from digital publishing to copyright, from globalisation to the changing nature of reading. We will explore the new literary realities facing readers, writers and publishers, and reflect on and intervene into the changing nature of reading, writing and publishing—circumstances that, naturally, also implicate both Meanjin and Overland.

So what has Meanland both achieved and debated in the course of 2010?

1. The inaugural Meanland event, hosted by the newly opened Wheeler Centre (remember, this was way back in February), was Reading in a time of change. The panel consisted of academic and author of The Book is Dead, Sherman Young; media commentator and author of The Content Makers, Margaret Simons; literary critic, Peter Craven; broadcaster and M-book author, Marieke Hardy; and chair, novelist and editor Sophie Cunningham. Each talk explored future possibilities for reading – how it might look and what form it might take fifteen years from now.

Given that the Meanland project was still in its infancy, we all knew a lot less about electronic reading at the time, but the panel did predict:

• Ebooks will take off in Australia, but online writing and drafting will see people lose their ‘dark and private spaces’ to digital noise (Simons)

• Digital publishing will allow space for experimentation with the short form (Hardy)

• Screens do not and will not ‘make us’ do things – shorten attention spans, strain eyes, and so on. We will adapt to these reading changes; for now, we should think of the screen as blank and malleable as paper (Young)

• ‘The book is not so much a physical object, but more an order of words’, which bodes well for developments in reading technologies (Craven)

Highlight: Overland editor Jeff Sparrow’s launch, when he uttered the evocative phrase, ‘Today, we are using a level of technology that our grandparents would have found simply magical.’

2. The future of the literary journal vs the future of the newspaper. Yes, two debates some of us at Meanland became preoccupied with this year, with related posts proving rather provocative.

‘No thanks, I’ve seen an old issue at the library’: on the responsibility of the reader for the decline of publishing posed the question: how will the literary journal and, by extension, literature survive if writers are unwilling to invest in them?

It is the rare emerging writer who comes equipped with an overabundance of funds, yet the question of whether or not to subscribe is seldom a straightforward monetary matter. It is more about the value we place on products and services: why is it we can justify the expense of an iPhone 4, but not the survival of a journal that continues a critical literary discourse and deliberately takes risks on aspiring writers?

More recently, Abandoning print – contemplating the fate of not just Meanjin but all print literary journals – argued the merit of continuing the print and digital aspects of established journals because of the incipiency of digital publishing.

Yet the response to the changing way people interact with technology is not simply a transmutative relationship: taking print and moving that print format online. Is it enough to put your print edition online, to change from one medium to another without thinking about creative publishing possibilities? Is it enough to have web pages and epub ebooks for the Kindle, the iPad, the Sony Reader Pocket Edition and stand back and wait for audiences to embrace these new formats? Can a publication that began in print move online, without a print counterpart, and assume its established readership will follow?

The great paywall of Murdoch looked at the history of the newspaper and asked: what purpose the present-day newspaper serve?

For some unfathomable reason, media barons are approaching news in the electronic frontier dressed in the same expectations they had of the print medium, even though the information works in a completely different way.

3. Poetry, gaming, science and more: Reading in a time of technology, Meanland’s second event, was an eye-opening foray into innovation and exploration on the digital frontier. The time has come to move the discussion beyond a resistance to technology and the digital medium because of an attachment to the smell of old books, proclaimed the panel’s introduction.

During the perception-shifting hour, the audience sat mesmerised as writer, performer and technology pioneer Klare Lanson built an aural landscape of ‘the talk’ and how reading is shaping ‘us’, which was followed by writer and game developer Paul Callaghan’s study on the overlap between narrative forms in books and games. Adrienne Nicotra, a biologist and founding editor of PROMETHEUSWiki, demonstrated the potential for educational texts and collaborative research databases. The panel concluded with Chris Meade, Director of if:book LONDON (‘a think and do tank’), passionately advocating for engagement with reading processes and audiences alike.

Weighty concepts from the panel included:

• ‘There is a fear that the digitisation of a singular book will result in all of the books in the world merging into one, a kind of collective consciousness with no beginning, no end, no individuality’ (Lanson)

• Games allow people to engage in the story and narrative in a way they can’t do in other narrative forms (Callaghan)

• Research citations and references are taking place online, everything is downloaded and no-one’s buying or writing textbooks anymore (Nicotra)

• Why do we persist in holding onto the idea that ‘real knowledge is in books’, despite all the other technology and learning that has developed over human history?

Highlight: When Adriene Nicotra’s scientific fact crushed the romantic notions of the audience by informing them that old book smell that everybody is so attached to is actually a fungus that can make people who are allergic rather ill.

4. Meanland spent some time this year celebrating ‘the library’. See Libraries are still way cool (seriously, watch the film) and The incalculable cultural significance of The Library, in which Sophie Cunningham, Jeff Sparrow and Jessica Au share their library experiences.

5. The Meanland Sydney Writers Festival event in May, Let the Games Begin: The iPad, the Kindle and the iPhone, saw passionate readers James Bradley, Sophie Cunningham and Sarah L’Estrange relate their experiences reading My Brilliant Career on a Kindle, iPad and iPhone to Jeff Sparrow. (Unfortunately, their revelations will forever remain the possession of audience members present, as there exists no footage of this event.)

6. Meanland would hardly have been serving its purpose if it didn’t consider eReading in all its modes.

The value of something speculated on how we ascribe value to a book, and how this translates to the electronic book. The lowdown on the eReader provided an overview of the eReader device and market. The iPad: tool of revolution or contrivance of capitalism? wondered why all they hype about the iPad (and what becomes of your data when you’re locked into a device)? Finally, Regarding the very modern ebook machine thing lays out how Digital Rights Management (DRM) affects eReaders and ebooks in Australia:

DRM affects ebooks. Ebook readers, on the other hand, are affected by formats. So the difficulty of eReading in Australia comes in where format issues and DRM meet. If you had a DRM-free ePub ebook, you would be able to read it on most ebook readers, but without conversions you’ll still have problems reading in on an out-of-the-box Kindle.

Therein lies the misconception. Or perhaps the misconception is exacerbated by linguistic similarities. For instance, an ePub is an ‘electronic publication’ but it is also a format of ebook. More accurately, it is a file format standard for the ebook, established by the International Digital Publishing Forum, which can work across platforms, devices and purposes. It is also not tied to a single publisher, unlike Amazon Kindle’s ebook format.

This is a problem: publishers place DRM on books, and this DRM is then also ebook-reader dependent due to restrictive software.

7. Copyright vs creativity, Meanland’s Cory Doctorow lecture, in conjunction with the Melbourne Writers Festival, saw Doctorow speak on one of his most popular subjects, and indeed one close to Meanland’s heart: what digital copyright means for creators. You can watch the lecture in its entirety, or read the write-up. Suffice to say, Doctorow argues that copyright no longer belongs to the creator and asks: so who exactly is benefitting from all the copyright legislation?

Doctorow’s laws:

• If there’s a lock for something and you haven’t been given the key, it’s not for your benefit

• It’s hard to monetise fame, but it’s impossible to monetise obscurity

• Information doesn’t want to be free, people do

Highlight: When Doctorow informed the audience that artists on iTunes only receive about 1/7th of a 50% share of each song sold on iTunes. There is even a percentage of the artist’s share that goes to the label to compensate for ‘breakages’ (of digital songs…).

8. Meanland spent a great deal of time reflecting on the ways technology is affecting consumption and production (reading and writing). On how computers and the internet may be shaping our creations: At the mercy of our instruments. On how digital publishing can and should be using knowledge architecture (or, at the very least, linking properly): What is it that makes the web so amazing? And specifically on writing for the web: So you’re writing a blog post?

9. The final Meanland event for 2010, Reading without privacy, was a wide-ranging discussion between Michael Williams, Jonathan Green, Alison Croggon, Jeff Sparrow and Sophie Cunningham on the ethics, evils and everything of Twitter, and other social media. (Soon to be televised.)

10. Personally, I’m ending the year with William Gibson: ‘The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.’

The debate about how and where we will read still rages; it is sometimes fought along a gaping divide: between those who have only ever read paperbacks and those devoted to the digital drum. Still, in some places in the world, there are people without access to the internet or technology.

We live in a world where the technology is, but we’re not necessarily using it.

Stay tuned for Meanland 2011, when we look more at creating in a time of technology and change.

Cross-posted from Meanland.

Jacinda Woodhead

Jacinda Woodhead is a former editor of Overland and current law student.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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