Search Inside This Book

Like many avid readers and scholars I am thoroughly enamored of Amazon.com’s Search Inside the Book feature. The feature debuted October 23, 2003 with the complete text of more than 120,000 books. I can’t find any recent data on how large the digital archive has grown in the past several months, but the folks at Amazon have said they would eventually like to have their entire catalog full-text searchable.

Gary Wolf explores the different dimensions of such a huge undertaking in “The Great Library of Amazonia”, an article in this past December’s Wired. As much as I agree with Wolf (“We want books to be as accessible and searchable as the Web”), there is one aspect of the whole project I find troubling. And that is, who performs the actual labor of digitizing these thousands of books? It sounds counter-intuitive, but publishers must send Amazon a physical copy of every book to be included in the database. And then some person, somewhere, manually turns and scans every page of that book.

There are machines that will automate the scanning process, like the Kirtas APT BookScan 1200, which costs a cool $150,000 and can scan 1,200 pages in one hour. But Wolf reports that Amazon.com has sent shipments of books to India to be scanned by human workers. There, according to a related Wired article, the workers turn pages by hand and make 40 cents an hour.

So, it is an unsettling fact of this global economy that I can search Amazon’s catalog for a book with the phrase “imperialist lackeys and running dogs” and then buy that book for $11.20–an exorbitant sum for that worker in India, about 28 hours’ worth of work. The only consolation is that however little 40 cents an hour is, it is still twice India’s average daily wage. Of course, this speaks more to the inequities of global capitalism than to the generosity of Amazon.com.

UPDATE (23 July 2009)

In the years since I wrote this post, I’ve created a number of assignments that use Amazon’s full-text search feature, such as this writing assignment for Jessica Hagedorn’s Dream Jungle.

Story-Space-Surveillance Triangle

My posting the other day about DARPA’s now-defunct Total Information Awareness project inspired me to rethink a New Media course I’ve been designing, using the concept of TIA as one of the three themes for the course.

The technology that DARPA proposed in its Total Information Awareness program is an example of what Laura Marks calls “invisible media” — the surveillance-based, database-driven media of the military, the healthcare industry, and financial institutions that are ubiquitous but hidden from everyday view. ATM cameras, pharmacy records, credit card transactions, E-ZPass sensors — these and other technologies document our nearly every move. In a recent episode of FOX’s 24, one character at the Counter Terrorism Unit had a live feed from a local hospital’s operating room piped into her desktop. It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds.

What is the relationship between these invisible media and the more “traditional” new media like hypertext and digital art installations celebrated by academics and new media theorists?

To answer this question, I first want to suggest that popular versions of new media theory have thus far primarily focused on one of two ways of understanding new media: (1) as an innovative way to tell stories (like Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck); or (2) as a space, where virtual structures are created and experienced (and often, contested, as Henry Jenkins argues).

These two terms — story and space — form a neat pair, but I think the line that runs from one to the other represents only a fraction of the power of new media. I see story and space as the two points of an inverted pyramid, a pyramid that only looks like a straight line; underneath this line the two points converge upon an upside-down apex. This is the third term, hidden beneath the surface of the other two. It is invisible media.

triangle.gif

This Story-Space pyramid is the central image in my course for understanding new media. Very quickly it becomes apparent that each pair of terms on the pyramid generates other terms, which then become additional keywords framing the class. For example, the drive toward narration and the mechanisms of invisible media produce what Mark Poster calls “superpanopticons,” vast databases in which our identities and life stories are constructed in our absence and without our knowledge. Invisible media also map information onto space, creating “augmented space.” This is physical space, according to Lev Manovich, onto which streams of data are overlayed. And of course, the terms story and space interact with each other and manifest themselves in architecture, landscape design, urban planning, but also in software packages, video games, and so on. All of these terms in turn generate new sets of concepts with which to approach and critically discuss new media.