On ten years of Custom PC

I’d like to do a post of great social and political import.

Ten years ago, I helped start a magazine. It’s still going, and the people running it now asked me to write a little bit about it. I was a staff writer on issue 1 of Custom PC and by issue 60-something, after five years, I’d become editor. I left two years after that, in 2010, so it’s been a while since I thought about CPC. But I got issue 1 down from the shelf and was reminded of the things we did I’d definitely do again, and of course, the many things I’d avoid if possible.
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On Snowfallen, and pollen for readers

Bobbie Johnson wrote a good critique of Snowfall, and I wrote a riposte on the work blog:

“Johnson assumes there’s one type of reader, the dedicated long-hauler who will diligently read 8,000 words about your topic. There are indeed some of these people. But there are many other types of readers, many skimmers, who will likely not be that entranced by your topic, or your opening line.

It is for these types of people that “magazine-style design” (for want of a better term), where you have a core story of flowing text surrounded by many box-outs, pull-quotes, maps and sidebars developed. These act like pollen to bees: they’re attractive, interesting and sticky. They provide a different take on the topic the article is addressing, and different entry points.”

 

On Quora, empathy and editorial value

One of the things I wanted to do more of this year was write about digital products. I’m going to start with Quora, because it’s a site I keep coming back to you, and yet I don’t think they know what they’re doing.

Their announcement of a blogging platform this week is a good illustration of how lost they are. Quora hasn’t given a compelling reason for it to exist, so it looks like the main motivation was the momentum behind Medium and Branch. It’s a shame Quora feels so lost, because part of what has been created there – by both the team and community – is brilliant. I also think Quora is worth studying because it exemplifies both the thinness and the brilliance of many shoot-for-the-moon start-ups with digital products.

“Quora connects you to everything you want to know about,” says the site’s About page (though they just changed it to “Quora is your best source of knowledge”).

Lofty. That’s shooting for the moon. And of course, a terrible curse to place on your product.

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A Terrible Beauty

Published in 2000, A Terrible Beauty is defiantly a pre-internet book(1). In under 850 pages (under 775 if you discount the index), it gives the reader a history of the twentieth century’s defining ideas, from Marxism to Nazism, from Feminism to fusion. Not just the ideas, but the people too – Satre, Picasso, Orwell and Janet Leigh and thousands more. In the words of its own subtitle, it is a history of ‘the people and ideas that shaped the modern mind.’ The idea of any book – any mere bundle of paper – attempting to do that thing now would seem weirdly futile.

Yet it’s the reason why this is the case, the one that’s on the tip of your tongue – yes, Wikipedia – that reading A Terrible Beauty brings to mind. The book is divided into four parts, and within these, 42 themed chapters. They are roughly chronological, but if a later development, discovery or idea fits a theme, it will be mentioned ahead of time, giving a beautiful sense of the uneven march of history. That said, so far, so traditional narrative. What’s very Wikipediary (!) about the book is that the people mentioned are all picked out in bold type when they first appear, enabling you to zip through the text and start reading when someone’s name catches your eye. Despite the fact it all ties together very well when you’re reading sequentially, it’s startlingly easy to just open the book and start reading. That’s how I first got into it; I was staying at a friend’s house, and it sat on the bedside table in the spare room.

The page I opened it at was 530, with its piece on Germaine Greer, immediately presenting one of Greer’s killer lines:

“Her book, The Female Eunuch, did not neglect women’s economic condition, though only one of its thirty chapters is devoted to work. Rather it drew its force from Greer’s unflinching comparison of the way women, love and marriage are presented in literature, both serious and popular, and in everyday currency, as compared with the way things really are. ‘Freud’, she writes, ‘is the father of psychoanalysis. It had no mother.'”

So it continues, brisk but not hurried, economical without being threadbare:

“Greer is withering in her criticisms of how men are presented as dominant, socially superior, older, richer, and taller than their women (Greer is very tall herself). In what is perhaps her most original contribution, she demolishes love and romance (both given their own chapters) as chimeras, totally divorced (an apt verb) from the much bleaker reality.”

The conclusion to this section has stayed with me since I first read it, a sentence that completely embodies the book’s title:

“As with all true liberation, this view is both bleak and exhilarating.”

It was this line that came to me today as I read two pieces about the future of computing and the internet.

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Virtual reality, then and now

In the 1980s and 1990s, the term ‘virtual reality’ was understood to mean the creation of reality inside the computer – and thus we would need to experience it using complex imaging and interaction systems (3D googles, cursors mapped to the movement of a glove etc.) The implication behind this was the reality itself would be untouched. The real world would simply be a home for the VR equipment: Star Trek imagines it holodeck as a big empty room, for instance. Moreover, since VR ran inside the computer, it only worked when you turned it on – and in movies such as The Lawnmower Man, the nightmare scenario was not being able to get out.

Few people imaginged that when VR came to pass, it would actually involve computers altering the way we acted in reality. The video below shows 100 dancers in central London recreating the dance from Beyonce’s music video for her song ‘Single Ladies’ (which Peter Sagal called ‘a wonderful, brilliantly performed dance number set to an irresistably catchy pop tune’). As a piece of PR in reality, it holds very little value – few people would have the chance to actually see it, as it the dancers and organisers take pains for it to appear to happen spontaneously on the street. It’s over in three minutes, and few of the people who happened to be walking by would actually be able to make sense of it because it only works if you’ve seen the original music video. Indeed, the behaviour of the dancers only really works if it’s watched as a video, passed around virally on the web. It is, essentially, VR: actions in reality that are targeted at, and only make sense when experienced virtually.