🐠 Robin Sloan: describing the emotions of life online
A Q+A with the author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24‑Hour Bookstore
This week, an interview with Robin Sloan on…
📚 the “radically rude and transformative” disruption of books
📲 what really drives change on social media platforms
🗑 why deletion and addition are essential qualities of care online
I knew when I was reading Mr. Penumbra’s 24‑Hour Bookstore that it would be perfect to launch New_ Public’s book club with. The novel is fun, energetic and has a lot to say about not just the particulars of the internet and communications technology, but also its spirit and values. I hope that this week’s newsletter, an interview with the novel’s author, Robin Sloan, will be a treat for everyone, whether or not you read the book along with us. There will be some spoilers below.
Before releasing Penumbra ten years ago, Robin worked in and around tech at the Poynter Institute, Current TV, and Twitter. Since, he has published another novel, Sourdough, and began a multitude of side-projects, including specialty olive oil and AI-assisted music. I recommend his newsletters. We had a long chat on the phone, ranging from books to the changing nature of social platforms. If you’re unfamiliar with Robin and the book, I strongly encourage you to download and read the essay Fish. The interview has been edited for clarity and concision.
Josh Kramer: I was reading this interview from when Mr. Penumbra’s 24‑Hour Bookstore came out a decade ago, and you were talking about fifteenth-century Venetian publishing inventor Manutius, and how his early printing scene was kind of like the internet of the time, right? There's arguing about ink and alloys and typefaces. What's interesting to you about books as technology?
Robin Sloan: I can't pretend that I've always been some great scholar of the history of books, or book technology, or the industry of books. It's something that I learned slowly over time by reading different books.
It was astonishing to me when I learned, or when I kind of got hit over the head with the reality that books are not eternal. Although today — it's still as true in 2022 as it was in 2012 — of course they seem comfortable and cozy. At this point, they're for sure a little bit retro, and they represent a kind of non-compliance with what the techno world wants you to do.
But they have been, at every stage of their development, totally disruptive. I mean, really, like radically rude and transformative. And they asked questions about everything from business, to personal life, to politics. And just the more I learned about that, the more I felt like I had to make that case myself and hopefully convinced at least a few more people of that reality.
I would say that when it comes to Manutius, in particular, I was really, really struck by his innovation, which was to make books smaller and more personal. That to me just had such clear resonances with the very recent history of computers and phones, and I just thought that was delicious.
That speaks to something we're always trying to get at with New_ Public. We are really interested in this idea that the current state of social media is not the inevitable way that social media has to be. History isn't on rails necessarily, and we really are just in the beginning of this thing.
I talk a lot about Manutius and the innovation of that period, but that's 500 years ago. And I know that people sometimes invoke the pulp paperback and all the wonderful effects — truly the fountain of culture and genre, and all the things that dominate culture today — they all come from this incredible innovation of this cheap paperback, but that's 100 years ago. And so I think, you know, it would be very reasonable for a late skeptic to ask, “okay, yeah, but you know, haven't books stabilized? Aren't they finally done?” And the answer, of course, is: No, not at all. I mean, you learn this as you just dig deeper and deeper into the reality of printing and publishing.
Printing, putting letters on some medium to be read in the real physical world, has continued to change and advance and transform and unlock new techniques, basically, linearly from its inception. And that's still just as true today as it was, you know, 100 years ago. It might not be as apparent for the person buying a book at a bookstore or getting it online. But the ways that books are made, the ways they're literally put together, that stuff is all changing all the time. Machines are being transformed and reinvented. When you realize that's the case, I think that it helps you understand that the same has to be true for everything else, including the internet and all the platforms that we know and, you know, struggle with.
[For more from Robin books, and the accessibility affordances of ebooks, click here.]
I want to dig into one of my favorite parts of the book. There's a scene where Clay and Kat and Neel are in New York together. And its Kat's first trip to the big city. Neel observes her trying to work out an algorithm for how the city works, and he warns that there are no logical rules, and “you don’t have enough memory.” That's really fascinating to me, and I think it's a really great way of talking about this idea that you can't just kind of fix any problems with human socialization by finding the right code for it, right?
Yeah, and think back to that time, 2010. I could be sort of mis-dating this, but in my memory, there was a lot of thought and excitement about sort of “structured information” and the sort of semantic web stuff, finding ways to structure relationships between ideas, and works of art, and people, and things. You could just map it all out, right? If we could just get the right XML MEME base to map it all out, then you could write a program and you'd be done. And I think that time has revealed that to be just absolute folly.
There's no map. You know, there is no “one true mapping” for the real world. And that's maybe the thing that makes it the real world. Like, there's virtual world, and there's imaginary world, and there's the logical world of embedded data experts, and there's all these different worlds. But there's only one real world.
Going further than that, in the book, when they do get the Codex, they throw the full power of fictional Google at it to try to crack it. I kind of love that Clay sees that in the end, the point of the Codex, and immortality I guess, is just about human relationships.
I just turned 42 years old, and I don't plan on croaking anytime soon. But you do sort of start to think about the world differently and you have kind of a different stance towards things. Let me say: on my deathbed, I'm not going to be thinking about my website for my servers. It's nonsense to think that I would be. You've got to remember that the things that are actually vital are other people, and maybe we can broaden it and just say other living things.
We talked about this in our Open Thread, but I love the line in the epilogue, “There is no immortality that is not built on friendship and work done with care.” I really do hope that one of the versions of the internet that we might build in the future has much more friendship and care. I feel like that's really relevant to what we’re talking about.
I keep coming back to this activity, this little mini project, of trying to identify and talk about feelings, and the new feelings associated with technology, specifically things like personal computers, the web, data centers, the vastness of the internet.
This is just my opinion, but I think there ought to be more. There's so much writing and thinking about technology through sort of economic terms. And that's important. But I think the emotional part of it is actually what matters in our day to day life. And I think when you articulate things, that helps you understand them and your life better, but I think then by publishing it you can help everybody understand what's going on.
Talking about the book ten years ago, you described yourself as a pretty serious user of Twitter. You worked there. And you said that even the origins of the book begin with a tweet right?
There's absolutely no denying it. Talk about different paths taken. Without that tweet, I'm sure the themes would have come out some other way, but the story wouldn't have been this 24-hour bookstore.
And well, I guess what I wanted to ask is, I've noticed that you're not really on social that much anymore. And I'm just wondering, what changed?
I think a lot of things changed. I mean, I changed. The world changed. The internet changed. But maybe it's most helpful to zero-in on one thing. I had this recognition when I worked at Twitter. I think a lot of people who worked at Twitter at that time, and I suppose, in the time since, realize this: that network, just as one example among many — of course it was being maintained by really talented engineers. And there were people who kept its servers running. And there were people, my colleagues, who were designing new features. Like, “oh, people should be able to attach an image” and they made that possible. And, they made decisions. At the same time, it was always so clear that those decisions being made at Twitter HQ were not the most important thing for the future of that network. They weren't driving what Twitter became. Instead, there was something quite organic about it.
I mean, not to be too weird, but something that made it feel truly like a living thing that was going through these phases of its own accord, like molting and growing and mutating, and “Ah! Now it has teeth! Look at those beautiful wings! Oh, it has shed its most recent skin. What emerges?” Truly, it just was not being designed, could not be designed from that central office.
And so first, I just think that's an important thing to recognize about all these systems, I think it's true of all of them. History has proven that their corporate managers cannot dictate what their users do, no matter how hard they try. There's just a whole graveyard of features eagerly introduced that the users of Twitter, or Instagram, or whoever, were like, “no thanks.”
But the kind of corollary of that is that they're always changing. And so it shouldn't be a surprise that a person who loved Twitter or loved Instagram or, I don't know, loved LinkedIn five years ago might not love it today because it is a different thing. I think that actually connects back to that sense of internet feelings, taking seriously the different sort of emotional responses we have to these platforms, to recognize that just as you're changing and growing in your life, so is this platform. I know friends who have changed in ways that I'm like, okay, I don't want to be friends with them anymore. They got kind of weird and cold and bitter. You know, where they got, oh, they got really spacey and, and woowoo or whatever.
The exact same thing can happen to a platform and I sort of think we ought to apply the same ongoing evaluation to platforms that we do to our friends or people we know in the world. I actually deleted my Twitter account, I'm not on Twitter at all. And, that was just my reckoning with that feeling of like, I'm tired of it. I don't want to spend time here or spend time doing this anymore. And in the end, that was a pretty easy decision to make.
Speaking of change over time, in your essay Fish, you describe how we rarely spend time closely investigating things on the internet, and “on the internet in 2012, reading something twice was a radical act.” You say that one way we show love on the internet, as opposed to just “liking,” is by revisiting things. “To love is to return,” you write.
To go back to something, it's got to have some sense of stability and reliability. Of course, this is like one of the great powers of the print book. Once printed, it might turn a little bit brown, but it doesn't change, it doesn't disappear. By contrast, there's truly an infinite number of stories of people being disappointed by something on the internet disappearing, or sort of shifting beneath their feet.
And just to offer one example in that infinitude: A couple years ago, I wrote a short story I really, really love. I still love it. And part of the premise of the story, or the conceit, was that it was posted as a Facebook Note. I love how it turned out. Lots of people read it. The fact that it was presented in a slightly cryptic Facebook Note format was definitely part of its success.
Fast forward a few years later, they have deprecated that whole part of their platform. And now my story looks like shit. The graphics are gone, the font is all fucked up. It's all kind of crammed together. They basically were like “oh, Facebook Notes haven't met our growth objective, so we're now deprecating the feature,” with the result that I presume that all the notes that everyone had made now kind of look like garbage. Whatever, I get it. That's the prerogative of platforms. That presents a real challenge to the enterprise of returning to things that you love and spending time with the things that deserve it.
In your recent newsletter “Notes on Web3,” you write, “I am a BIG fan of deletion, an operation basically antithetical to Web3. What do we lose when we lose deletion?” So, and maybe this is the opposite of what we’ve been talking about, but there are obviously positive qualities to the ephemerality of the internet. So, I'm going to ask you what you ask in your newsletter: what do we lose when we lose deletion?
So earlier, invoking the epilogue of Penumbra, we used the word “care.” Work done with care. And it's odd actually, both Facebook's abandonment of this nice formatting on this product they offered, and this sort of relentless addition of the Ethereum blockchain, to me, stand in opposition to care. Because they both kind of say on some level, well, it's just garbage. Or like, there's always more, who cares? Whereas to me, this connects back to homepages. Obviously, no one does this, I recognize this is a very niche endeavor, but the art and craft of maintaining a homepage, with some of your writing and a page that's about you and whatever else over time, of course always includes addition and deletion, just like a garden — you're snipping the dead blooms. I do this a lot. I'll see something really old on my site, and I go, “you know what, I don't like this anymore,” and I will delete it.
But that's care. Both adding things and deleting things. Basically the sense of looking at something and saying, “is this good? Is this right? Can I make it better? What does this need right now?” Those are all expressions of care. And I think both the relentless abandonment of stuff that doesn't have a billion users by tech companies, and the relentless accretion of garbage on the blockchain, I think they're both kind of the antithesis, honestly, of care.
Well, I guess what I'd like to end on is: What tech — however you want to interpret tech, because as you say in Fish, it could be books, songs, apps, etc. — either new or often returned to, are you excited about now?
Well I remain excited about books, or print books, which of course are some of the world's great technology. And, I will say that I do not take for granted 2022's offering of being able to play Roblox online with my nephews, while I video chat with them at the same time from my little rinky dink laptop. Do I think that Roblox is the greatest thing in the world? No. Do I think the video chat is the greatest thing in the world? Well, maybe, it's pretty good. But being able to do that is truly magical. Of course I am often critical of all sorts of technology. But I think it's just really useful to recognize the incredibly humane and nourishing effects of some of this stuff. Which, credit where due, the gigantic techno-structure, the thing I was just complaining about, that's what gave us this. So I do like playing video games with my nephews online.
And this is a little more generic: I am not a fan of web3 or interested in getting involved in, putting stuff on the Ethereum blockchain. But I do — as I wrote in that piece — take the note, which is that there's still plenty of space on the internet for new protocols. A protocol is not the same thing as a platform. You think of a protocol, it's something like HTTP. Obviously Ethereum is built on all these protocols that allow these nodes to talk to each other.
There's an old protocol called Gopher that I used to use when I was a kid, sort of, you were navigating a system of menus online. In the 80s and 90s, it was like a new protocol every day. That's what people were inventing. They weren't launching web platforms. They were launching and trying to popularize new protocols. BitTorrent is a protocol. That's actually a great example of a relatively recent and extremely successful brand new protocol. So there's protocols out there. And people are trying to make it work all the time. It's really hard. It's a lot easier to launch a website. But, I am, these days, pretty excited about protocols, and thinking about protocols and wondering like, what would it mean maybe to invent a new one.
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Looking at my fish,
Design and illustration by Josh Kramer. Screenshots from Robin’s essay Fish.
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