catalog news 006: voyagers of the mind
by glenn poppemarch 7, 2024

dear friends,

we've just entered book two of middlemarch with our bluesky friends, which has been a lot of fun so far. i think the swirling daily conversation will provide enough energy to help me finish it this time!

the experience has also reinforced some of our ideas about how we might reorient talk around books online. i'm excited to share that thinking here as it helps give more shape to the book space we imagine.


as we’ve been building catalog, i’ve been paying more attention to how books show up in conversation, from the everyday sharing of favorite stories with friends to the dialogue between a book and those it references and influences. the conversations about a book take many shapes — other books, interviews, articles, recommendations, references, adaptations, events, chats, posts, etc. — and most of them now exist as media online. however, even when available on the same screen and talking about the same book, i notice that the conversations don’t flow together. books and news and social media and chats all live apart in silos accessed through different applications, websites, or feeds.  the “content” are organized by their containers rather than ideas and stories that exist within.  

books live in conversation across the digital world

take psychonauts, as an example, which i just finished (and hearted). it’s a fascinating account of scientists self-experimenting with drugs to explore their minds and it left me with a lot of thoughts and questions.  what were the research and editorial processes like? what did critics make of it? where can i learn more about freud promoting coke? is the author giving any talks nearby? what’s he working on next? many of these conversations already exist online, but it’s a struggle to find my way through them. i navigate across sites, each offering an incomplete picture. goodreads and amazon focus narrowly on consumer product reviews (mostly unhelpful, some hilariously so). literary conversation on twitter is hard to surface and has splintered post-musk. google’s results are monolithic and disconnected from the people and organizations that i know.  i try to follow my curiosity, but i’m led off the trail. my paths are mediated by a patchwork of companies that fragment and divert attention, patterns of enshittification that herald “a dark age for publishing.” 

it’s easy to confuse the shapes of digital media with the reality of our conversational landscape, especially as we live more of our lives online, but they’re partial and distorted representations. i find the term “psychonaut” helpful for untangling the maps from the territory and suggesting new ways to navigate more freely online.  derived from ancient greek to mean “voyager of the mind,” the word became popular in the 1960s to describe those exploring altered states of consciousness. the idea of taking a “trip” seems to apply just as well to the shared hallucinations of media (per mcluhan).  we direct our attention through an information environment, our minds traveling beyond our bodies.  i often feel transported when reading — the book serves as an ethereal meeting place as my mind comes to the same place as the author’s, inhabiting the same stories and ideas. this perspective feels familiar online too, where our language is always rooted in shared physical space – from engelbart  “jumping” on the first hypertext link to gibson’s “cyberspace” to ralph breaks the internet (pictured below). new vr/ar/spatial interfaces further blend the virtual and physical navigation. 

the internet as depicted in disney's "ralph breaks the internet" (2018)

with minds as embodied travelers, books and media become interactions along a journey rather than products to be consumed. with this view, i become more attuned to my path and its influences. even auto-correct can feel like a dulling of agency.  however, i’m most sensitive to how platforms attract and funnel my gaze, guiding me for their benefit. i notice how their algorithmic shepherding contrasts starkly to wandering the alleys of wikipedia. today our online habitat feels more like a few malls than a digital city.

but there is hope! new disruptive technologies and belated regulatory interventions are rapidly changing this attention environment. we’re adapting in real time, our online behaviors becoming more fluid, embracing some new paths and resisting others. the moment offers an opportunity to imagine new shapes for where we might go together online.  

generative ai and its applications feel the most transformative.  for one, ai rapidly lowers the friction to publish, just as the internet and printing press did before. we’re already experiencing a new flood of synthetic content – openai generates 500m words per day — which is further stressing our ability to make sense of what we see online. to ground our conversations in a shared reality we’ll need to be able to trust who’s participating and what’s said.  fortunately, another emerging technology, decentralized social protocols, is well suited to help on this front.

elon musk’s takeover of the “de facto town square” of twitter (now x) made clear the harms of centralizing control of our attention. advocates for the open internet have worked to preserve freedom online since its inception (e.g net neutrality, open standards, privacy protections, anti-censorship) and today they champion an open social web, a constellation of emerging decentralized protocols (e.g. activitypub, at protocol, farcaster, etc.) that provide us more control over our identities and how we interact. in the open social web, apps build on shared data structures (more like email or podcasts, where different platforms and clients can be used to distribute or consume the same underlying data) rather than locking users into proprietary networks. the growing momentum toward these open social spaces (even by meta) is a promising shift toward a better online future. decentralized social infrastructure serves as a new grid for the digital public sphere, allowing people and communities with different preferences and purposes to participate as they wish. while many apps resemble twitter clones today (mimicking the past just like radio shows on early tv or static newspaper images on web1), the open social web invites new designs for navigating conversation that reflect how we’d prefer our minds to move, both online and off.  

a browser in a book space

books are vital objects at the center of the public conversation and offer an ideal starting point for the explorations of what’s next.  they’re resilient to technological disruption, supported by public knowledge infrastructure (e.g. libraries, academia, openlibrary), cared for by an extensive network of distributed authorities (authors, critics, booksellers, publishers, press, etc.), and have an enormous cultural impact across domains (film, policy, etc.).  we also care about them deeply — the conversations around books matter well beyond their economics, which throws into relief the insufficiency of their current treatment online. 

so how might we design differently for books in a new digital world? rory described the vibe of a new space for books that centers our care for the ideas and stories and people involved. the changing shapes of our attention environment suggests some alternative paths we might take to get there:

  • we can prioritize human curation rather than algorithms. we can organize around choices made by people we trust, making visible care that already exists around books. 
  • we can treat books as conversation rather than content.  we can understand media as ecologies not products – dynamic systems of interactions between people, the communities they make up, and the media they produce – allowing us to create new experiences around them. 
  • we can build on an open catalog rather than proprietary networks.  we can index media to trusted shared identifiers (e.g. for books and people) across domains and help anchor consensus reality that transcends a fragmented and synthetic landscape.

we’ll outline more of our specific plans as we go, but our hope is to make these choices obvious in the experience of the spaces we create. we think one of the best ways to explore their implementation is to play together and see what works.  as an example (and previously mentioned), this month we’re running a fun experiment on bluesky with a group reading middlemarch together, surfacing conversation on catalog’s book page

bluesky looks to be a good early testing ground.  it’s accessible, easy to use, and already has some book-specific feeds (e.g. “month of dick” 🐋).  most importantly, bluesky’s approach to decentralized identity, discovery, and moderation is in line with our own thinking and they make the benefits easy to grok (e.g. domain verification, custom feeds, user-hosted data, app-level curation).  we’re excited to be able to stand on the shoulders of builders working toward the same goals. 

jeff deutsch, the director of chicago’s seminary co-op bookstores, praises good bookstores as ones that care deeply for the act of browsing, providing the time and space and community that respect and support a reader’s journey. this ethos finds a parallel in the landscapes navigated by our browsers online.  the public conversation online has suffered from enclosure and extraction, but new foundations offer an opportunity to recenter our agency. we’re excited to imagine a space for books together that better cares for our journeys online.