I want­ed to start by estab­lish­ing where we are right now, right here, today. And I’m going to sug­gest that we are in the Black Maria. Black walls, black ceil­ing. Not too much light out there. Who’s this guy?

Grainy image of a man holding a handkerchief, with his eyes closed and mouth slightly open

We are in the Black Maria. And to accom­plish the things that we want to accom­plish here, we’re going to need both art and sci­ence. Who is this guy? We are in the Black Maria. And if you don’t see it yet, you will. Trust me.

So I wrote this book, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. It’s about an out-of-work web design­er who gets a job work­ing the night shift at a very strange book­store in San Francisco. It came out in the US in October. It’s com­ing in the UK next year, going to be pub­lished by Atlantic Books. And that’s real­ly all I’m going to say about it in this talk. The only rea­son I’m bring­ing it up is because along with the pub­li­ca­tion in the US, there’s been a spate of inter­views and lit­tle pro­files and blog posts and things. And as part of that, reporters always Google me and they find my web­site, and there they see this

Robin Sloan Inventing Media 00 01 33

This lit­tle tag line on the top of every page. I’m a writer and a media inven­tor. I basi­cal­ly made that up a cou­ple years ago. I was cast­ing about for some label to describe the mix of things that I do. You know, it’s not just fic­tion, it’s also things like apps and lit­tle exper­i­ments that play out on the Web. Things that I write in Javascript. And I need­ed a way to describe it, the total­i­ty of it. 

Clippings from various stories, showing the phrase "media inventor" in quotes.

So it turns out nobody can repeat the sec­ond part with­out quo­ta­tion marks, right. A self-described media inven­tor” I think you heard them in the air when Andy said it. He’s a…‘media inven­tor.’ ” Robin Sloan, if that is your real name…

But actu­al­ly, that’s not uncom­mon. Quotation marks often serve as a kind of ear­ly warn­ing sig­nal. The strug­gle with lan­guage, the strug­gle to find words, in the sense that they don’t quite fit for a long time, is actu­al­ly total­ly com­mon. Anytime on you find peo­ple work­ing with strange tools or com­bin­ing famil­iar tools in strange ways, you will often find quo­ta­tion marks. You will often find them I’m strug­gling to come up with the right words to describe what­ev­er it is they’re doing. And then of course ques­tion­ing the words they’ve chosen. 

My favorite exam­ples of that in his­to­ry is movies around the turn of the last cen­tu­ry. Of course, cir­ca 1900, they were actu­al­ly still movies.” If you look in the Oxford English Dictionary at their great sort of time­line of usage, you’ll see it. You’ll see the mat­u­ra­tion of this medi­um, and the mat­u­ra­tion of this word. The first ref­er­ence to movies comes in 1909, and it’s not until some­time between 1914 and 1938 that the apos­tro­phe final­ly drops. It’s like, Okay. Maybe this thing will actu­al­ly stick around. Maybe these movies’ are actu­al­ly good for something.”

Various obsolete terms for early machines: zoetrope, praxinoscope, chronophotoraphic gun, electrotachyscope, kinetoscope, phonokinetoscope

Before that, clos­er to 1900, nobody knew what to call any­thing in the movie indus­try. Every word was made up, every word was in quo­ta­tion marks. From the van­tage point of today, it looks sort of ridicu­lous. But these words, they rep­re­sent a real strug­gle. These peo­ple were doing some­thing new. They were in unchart­ed unchart­ed ter­ri­to­ry, both mechan­i­cal­ly and cre­ative­ly. I mean, what’s a cronopho­to­graph­ic gun? Can any­one guess? It’s actu­al­ly the most cir­cuitous way imag­in­able to describe a movie cam­era. But of course in 1900 they did­n’t have the word movie.” And they also did­n’t have the word cam­era, at least not applied to mov­ing images. So you’re like, Well, it’s this thing, you shoot it, you point it, it takes the­ses pic­tures…” Suddenly, cronopho­to­graph­ic gun does­n’t sound so bad.

They were still so far away from the sta­bil­i­ty of a word like movie.” Now, today of course the quo­ta­tion marks are long gone. Movies have set­tled in. They’re not fixed. The con­tent of movies is still chang­ing, things like the 3D are emerg­ing. But they’re def­i­nite­ly mature. Especially if we work on dig­i­tal prod­ucts, we build and design around movies I’d argue that we take the movie as sort of a black box.

What’s in the box? We all know this. It’s a sequence of video, between 90 and 140 min­utes. The video is 1,920 pix­els wide. Video uses tech­niques like cuts and close ups. We know this. We know these spec­i­fi­ca­tions. And we know these words.

Three rectangles, with proportions similar to movie posters.

The movie, the black box, is always rep­re­sent­ed on the screen by a rec­tan­gle, rough­ly the shape of a movie poster, always. It’d be ridicu­lous if you made a web site or appli­ca­tion that showed movies as cir­cles or ovals or squares. It’s fun­ny actu­al­ly. As a side­note, isn’t it fun­ny that these might be books, they might be movies. But these are def­i­nite­ly albums, right? Always and everywhere.

In iTunes, on Rdio, and every­where else. Echoes of the past. You can kind of see the ghost­ly CD, the ghost­ly LP, lurk­ing inside that per­fect square. I love those lit­tle conventions. 

So any­way, it’s pos­si­ble to do great, use­ful, inter­est­ing, reward­ing work around a sta­ble, mature for­mat. Of course it is. But. Don’t you think it’s a shame to leave these box­es black? To cede that cre­ative space to oth­er peo­ple, most of them long-dead? I want to con­vince you that it is a shame. The prac­tice of crack­ing open the black box and build­ing new box­es alto­geth­er is real, and it has a name.

So, back before movies” dropped its quo­ta­tion marks, back in the era of the cronopho­to­graph­ic gun, there was one for­mat that broke out ahead of the pack, one of these words that actu­al­ly got some trac­tion, right around 1900. It was Thomas Edison’s kine­to­scope, which was most­ly the work of his employ­ee William Dixon. And you can think about it this way. Edison and Dixon had built a kind of prim­i­tive movie cam­era. They devel­oped a way of play­ing back what they record­ed. So they had all the pieces of the puz­zle. They had, in fact, built this brand new box.

A man leaning over a wooden cabinet, peering into the top of it, with earpieces for hearing audio in his ears.

And it real­ly was a box. This is how it looked. This how it worked. You would go into a kine­to­scope par­lor” and see what was play­ing. But they did­n’t know what to put inside the box. Not yet. So they just tried everything. 

They tried ath­let­ic demos. They tried behead­ings. They tried box­ing cats. This is one of the first videos ever made in his­to­ry. I still think that guy in the back is one of the creepi­est things ever com­mit­ted to film.

You can feel it, right? You can feel that Edison and Dixon know they’re on to some­thing. They know this tech­nol­o­gy is real­ly excit­ing, but they have no idea what to do with it. So what we’re look­ing at here is cre­ative R&D. These are cre­ative pro­to­types. This feels like such fun to me. I think it must’ve been fun. And that means it’s fun right now, too. Because we too are in the Black Maria. 

Grainy image of a man holding a handkerchief, with his eyes closed and mouth slightly open

Who is this? Today in 2012, right now, sit­ting in this space, all of us. We are in the Black Maria. Do you see it? You will.

An Apple iPhone

Let me make this more con­crete. I’m going to move from 1900 to 2012. I’m going to share my own per­son­al tale of media inven­tion. I should start by say­ing, or estab­lish­ing, that these are pret­ty pop­u­lar, obvi­ous­ly. Perhaps espe­cial­ly among the peo­ple in this room. I am specif­i­cal­ly inter­est­ed, almost obsessed, with the cre­ative pos­si­bil­i­ties of screens like this. I think there are ways to tell sto­ries, to make argu­ments, on this kind of screen, with its beau­ty, inti­ma­cy, its sort of tac­til­i­ty, that are tru­ly new. Like, tru­ly world-historically new. And I think sto­ries told on the screen could com­pete with all those oth­er black box­es. You know, with movies, books, and albums, all of it. They could com­pete for our atten­tion. They could com­pete in the are­na of culture.

An iPhone with an illustration of a woman on its screen, her eyes closed

That’s what I believe. So I decid­ed to give it a try. At the begin­ning of this year, I sketched out a retelling of the myth of Orpheus. Remember, this is the one where Orpheus’ lover Eurydice, she dies. Orpheus is heart­bro­ken, and he won’t accept it. So he goes down into the under­world (as one does) and he plays a tune for Hades. He’s the best musi­cian of all time so Hades decides to give him a break, and he agrees to release Eurydice. On one con­di­tion. Orpheus has to lead her back up to the land of the liv­ing with­out look­ing back. So, ner­vous­ly he starts the climb. If you don’t know the sto­ry I won’t spoil it for you. It’s very dramatic. 

This is what I made, Don’t Scroll Back Orpheus. That was the title. And this is per­fect, right? Form meets con­tent on this kind of device. You scroll down for the first half of the sto­ry, fol­low­ing Orpheus down into the under­world for his con­fronta­tion with Hades. Then the scroll direc­tion actu­al­ly changed, and you went back up. And it real­ly did feel like claim­ing. It was hard­er to make your way back up through the sto­ry. Form meets con­tent. I was so excit­ed about this.

I found this page from my notes where you can see I’m decid­ing what to call this amaz­ing new for­mat. The scrol­lotrope, the sto­ry­board, the scroll­board. Clearly this is going to be so pop­u­lar that it needs a name imme­di­ate­ly. I bet­ter fig­ure it out fast. 


As it turns out it did not need a name. Because it did­n’t work. It was like those videos, you know. As a view­er, you kind of look at it and you go, I get what you’re try­ing to do there, but this mayyy not be the future of enter­tain­ment.” I put this thing togeth­er. I showed it to a few peo­ple. And every­body went, I see what you’re try­ing to do here but…it’s not that good. Not yet.”

So then I went back to the draw­ing board. And I can’t say I did so armed with any great insight or rev­e­la­tion. I just knew one thing that did­n’t work. I still did­n’t know what would work. So I just tried again. I start­ed a new sto­ry. Actually, this time it was more of an essay. It was about the lim­its of atten­tion on the Internet today. 

Here’s the project in Xcode. I wrote the text and I built app togeth­er at the same time, just as I had done with with Orpheus. I’d be writ­ing, I’d think of some­thing I want­ed to do cre­ative­ly, and then I’d imple­ment in Objective C. I’d run the app again to see if it had worked. Often, it did­n’t. So I’d take it back, I’d try some­thing else. I’d do this again and again and again. Compile and recom­pile and recom­pile. Read and reread and reread.

The result of this process was an app called Fish that some of you might have used, you might’ve read. You can down­load it for free in the App Store if not. It starts like this. It kind of announces itself first thing. I opt­ed against quote marks but you know, I prob­a­bly should’ve includ­ed them. This is a tap essay. Just tap any­where. Go for it. I want to talk about the dif­fer­ence between lik­ing some­thing on the inter­net and lov­ing some­thing on the internet.”

The main thing that dis­tin­guish­es this form, I think, is the way the sen­tences are bro­ken up like that, some­times down into phras­es, some­times down into indi­vid­ual words. It sort of lends the read­ing expe­ri­ence the rhythm of speech. So this time, I showed it to some peo­ple, and it worked. They liked it. It was actu­al­ly real­ly cool. And I had no idea what to call it at first. Definitely not scrol­lotrope.” It’s actu­al­ly where I came up with tap essay” and kind of put it in after the fact.

It was a great suc­cess. Many peo­ple down­loaded it and talked about it, both its form and its con­tent, which is kind of exact­ly what I was after. And even today, months and months after it was orig­i­nal­ly released, peo­ple are still tweet­ing from inside the app, shar­ing and reshar­ing these pithy lit­tle lines they’re dis­cov­er­ing there.

So, after I released this first tap essay,” of course, I thought, I’ve got­ta make anoth­er one.” Or bet­ter yet, I got­ta make a tool to help oth­er peo­ple make these.” This could be a brand new box. This could be a new for­mat. The tap essay. One day the quo­ta­tion marks might even fall off.

But I could­n’t do it, you know. The app­s’s code was bound real­ly tight­ly to its con­tent. And I’m not actu­al­ly a very good pro­gram­mer, and I had a nov­el to fin­ish. And then I got lucky. A guy named John Borthwick at Betaworks in New York was a fan of Fish, and he believed that it was a new for­mat, or some­thing on the road to a new for­mat. So he built a lit­tle team which includ­ed a super-talented design­er and devel­op­er named Patrick Moberg.

And in a mat­ter of months Patrick cranked out this. It’s called Tapestry. This is live on the web today. It just launched a cou­ple weeks ago. It’s at tapes​try​.is And it’s a plat­form for tap essays. Or tap sto­ries,” actu­al­ly, as Betaworks is call­ing them now. Quotation marks still very much in effect. And, you know, it’s awe­some. You can make new tap sto­ries, you can edit them, you can see them all laid out. You can sort of see the shape and the struc­ture of these things that used to be total­ly obscured in code and nest­ed HTML tags. And this is excit­ing because it means now the work can real­ly begin. We can start to under­stand, is this real­ly a new for­mat? If so, what are its prop­er­ties? What are its physics?

I have some guess­es. I have some opin­ions of my own. For instance, I think rhythm is cru­cial to a tap sto­ry. The rhythm of the words and how that rhythm is expressed in the reveals. I think a good tap sto­ry is actu­al­ly more like a speech than it is like a blog post. But who knows? I mean, I don’t actu­al­ly know any more about this for­mat than any­body else. It’s brand new. It’s fair game.

So that’s a tiny bit of mod­ern media inven­tion. This is a far cry from the kine­to­scope, but it is at least a com­plete arc from notion to fail­ure to pro­to­type to for­mat. Repeatable and explorable. There is now this new lit­tle box, some­thing called a tap sto­ry,” that oth­er peo­ple can fill up with words, pic­tures, ideas. With stories.

So why do this? Why both­er with any­thing like that? Well, I think that’s pret­ty clear, actu­al­ly. You know, in 1900, Edison and com­pa­ny saw this mag­i­cal new thing, the record­ing and the recre­ation of mov­ing images. They saw that it was pos­si­ble for the first time. Now, they did not fore­see what it would become. They did not fore­see Citizen Kane. They did not fore­see the BBC’s Planet Earth doc­u­men­taries. They did not fore­see Back to the Future. But they knew there was some­thing there. They knew there was some­thing pos­si­ble. So they worked hard. They rus­tled up some box­ing cats. And now we owe them a debt of grat­i­tude for all that has fol­lowed, all that they could not have foreseen. 

Well, I think today we, too, find our­selves with some­thing mag­i­cal. We have these beau­ti­ful, inti­mate, tac­tile screens that’re all con­nect­ed to the inter­net. There’s some­thing here. And there­fore, I think, by pow­er of syl­lo­gism, there must be cre­ations just as won­der­ful and unfore­see­able as Kane or Back to the Future wait­ing in our future that we can­not see, that we can­not imag­ine, but that we can begin. We can be their prog­en­i­tors, if we choose. 

Grainy image of a man holding a handkerchief, with his eyes closed and mouth slightly open

So who is this guy? This is Fred Ott. He worked on Edison’s team back in 1900. And he is the star of the great­est of these weird lit­tle videos. It is a kine­to­graph­ic record­ing of a sneeze. And this is actu­al­ly the first copy­right­ed movie in his­to­ry. Edison and his team record­ed this on their kine­to­graph. They print­ed out the frames, and they sub­mit­ted them to the Library Congress, and it had the title Record of a Sneeze.” They had no idea what they were doing.

Fred Ott sneezed here. This is the Black Maria, at last. This was Edison’s movie stu­dio. In fact, it was the first movie stu­dio. They called it that, the Black Maria because it was big and black and sort of shaped like a police wag­on, maybe. Those were called Black Marias at the time. I think it prob­a­bly tells you, more than any­thing, else about Edison’s rela­tion­ship to his employ­ees. They felt trapped, per­haps. They built this place in New Jersey. It cost about six­teen thou­sand dol­lars, in mod­ern 2012 dol­lars, to build. And was total­ly a pile of junk. I think you can you kin­da tell by look­ing at it. Basically a big shed. The walls were all just cov­ered in tar paper. This is where they filmed all those ear­ly videos. You know, they brought them all here, the ath­letes, and the actors, and yes the box­ing cats. And they went to work even though they obvi­ous­ly had no idea what they were doing. They just tried things, again and again, for just about ten years exact­ly. They did it all here, in this cramped lit­tle laboratory.

Can you see that faint line, that sort of track in the dirt? The Black Maria was built on a rotat­ing plat­form. The kine­to­graph need­ed a ton of light to oper­ate at all, so they would open that big pan­el on top and then they would just turn the whole build­ing to face the sun. Which is so janky. And won­der­ful. I’m sure that some peo­ple in this room have made tech­ni­cal deci­sions basi­cal­ly equiv­a­lent to putting the whole build­ing on a rotat­ing plat­form so it can face the sun. And that’s okay.

What were these guys doing there? They were inven­tors in the clas­sic sense, sure. They were build­ing crazy machines. But they were mak­ing the con­tent at the same time, and I think that’s impor­tant. Inside the stu­dio, there was a pile of gears and lens­es. But out­side the stu­dio, there was a long line of actors and dancers, maybe a few stray cats. And all of that worked togeth­er. They were not just inven­tors. They were media inven­tors. No quo­ta­tion marks. This is real, and I think it needs a name. If a guy in 1887 could call some­thing the elec­tro­tachyscope and get away with it, I think I can get away with call­ing these guys media inventors.

And this is what I want to be. I don’t actu­al­ly think I am one yet. I don’t think I’ve done any­thing wor­thy of the name. But this is my ambi­tion, you know. This is my lodestar. And if any of this sounds inter­est­ing to you, I invite you to use the term, too. 

The truth is you might already be a media inven­tor with­out real­iz­ing it. For instance, you might be a media inven­tor if: You don’t quite have the words to describe what it is you do. If you strug­gle with lan­guage to describe your pre­oc­cu­pa­tions. If you rou­tine­ly feel dumb, sort of stam­mer­ing, about a pos­si­bil­i­ty that you can see so clearly. 

You might be media inven­tor if you tend to tog­gle back and forth between tech­nol­o­gy and con­tent. If you work on ideas and code togeth­er. Especially if you love both. If you appre­ci­ate the par­tic­u­lar plea­sures of each. If you find your­self drawn to both, even if it’s clear that you’re way bet­ter at one than the oth­er. If your tal­ents are lop­sided… Maybe you’re great pro­gram­mer but a bad writer. Maybe you’re a great writer but a ter­ri­ble design­er. It does­n’t mat­ter. Talent has very lit­tle to do with this.

You might be a media inven­tor if you’re work­ing inside the black box. If you feel per­haps not quite cre­ative­ly sat­is­fied, shuf­fling and reshuf­fling a deck that was cre­at­ed decades before you were born. If you think you might be inter­est­ed in mak­ing a new format.

We are in the Black Maria. Can you see it now? Can you feel it? The future, just out of sight, still in quo­ta­tion marks, for­ev­er trapped in quo­ta­tion marks, but nev­er­the­less being fash­ioned right here, in the dark. 

1893–1903; 2007–

We are in the Black Maria. Edison and his crew spent ten years in that shed before they final­ly upgrad­ed. They moved to New York City and they had a beau­ti­ful glass stu­dio built there. When they upgrad­ed, the word movies still did­n’t exist. We’ve had these [holds up cell phone] for about five years? So we’re right in the mid­dle of our time in the shed. And when that time is up, we will not have come to the end. No way. We will in fact final­ly be at the begin­ning. We’ll final­ly be ready to find our own movies.”

Illustration of people working inside the Black Maria; a man standing next to the camera with a gramaphone nearby; towards the back a group of people around a table

Here we are. It’s hot. It’s cramped. It’s stuffy. The wheels keep get­ting stuck when we try to turn the whole build­ing around. We’ve been up all night. There’s a guy out front with a fer­ret who he’s taught to play a tiny trom­bone, and he wants us to put it in front of the kine­to­graph. And you know what? We prob­a­bly will.

Right now in 2012, work­ing with screens, telling sto­ries on these new devices, I’m con­vinced we are in our own Black Maria. And I think it’s a won­der­ful place to be. 

Thank you.

Further Reference

Robin Sloan’s home page