what is this site? | virtual book

what is this site?

#notes #writing #mediums

This site – okjuan.me/vbook – contains all my public writing. My

original idea

how to come up with ideas

#essays #creativity #ideas #inspiration Mentioned in what is this site?

As you will have noticed, the essays on this site are all titled “how to X”, but are not guides as much as blog entries. “How to” is just a rhetorical device, an invitation to approach a subject. I got the idea, mainly, from the HBO show “How to with John Wilson”. Episodes like “How to make small talk” are not really guides but a series of confessional musings from John Wilson and his impromptu guests. However, unlike the show, my writings here are genuinely interested in how to do things. Specifically, I will write about things that interest me: books, writing, programming, psychology, relationships, and so on.

Another inspiration is Derek Sivers’ book How to Live, a sequence of conflicting worldviews presented together. As he describes it, “Not quite non-fiction, not quite self-help. It’s a work of art.” This might sound lofty, but he means his book is for provoking readers to think rather than telling them what to think. Writing meant to stir the reader, but not to lead them to a particular conclusion. I intend to do something similar here. My answers to questions of “how to” will not be answers but responses, responses meant to be in conversation with one another, regardless of whether they agree.

A third inspiration is Andy Matuschak’s Evergreen Notes and the underlying Zettelkasten method. Instead of burying old posts beneath a mound of new ones, I want to extend a body of ideas continuously. That’s why each post has clickable #tags at the top. They form links that, over the years, will extend into networks of ideas I’ve developed or encountered. Later, when I want to revisit my thoughts on a particular #topic, I can just click on it.

for it was to gather all my essays to create a wikipedia-like experience. Then I realized I should loosen the restriction on form and build a vaster network of ideas, one that may include notes, reviews, journal entries, poems, stories, pictures, videos, audio, or any form that is yet to occur to me or anyone else.

You can think of this site as a digital garden, but I hope it becomes a good example of what I call a

virtual book

what is a virtual book?

#notes #writing #mediums Mentioned in On Writing (2000), what is this site?, what is this site? #2, what I'm doing now

I wrote an essay called The Virtual Book but I never defined the term. By virtual book I mean a book unbound by the traditional and physical constraints of printed books. I say ‘virtual’ because the greatest possibilities I see are in the virtual world of computers. Ebooks and audiobooks are just the beginning. The possibilities that excite me challenge not only the physicality of books but also their more subtle attributes.

A virtual book can be multi-media. It can consist of words, images, video, audio. There, we got the obvious one out of the way.

A virtual book can be reader-driven. Instead of forcing readers to follow the author’s thought process, a virtual book can let each reader steer the way. Wikipedia does this already. It lets you search the page for keywords, skip to the section you’re interested in, and even escape into a tangential topic, never to return. This is a natural way to consume Wikipedia because its form affords it.

Books generally have one start and one ending, but a virtual book can be non-linear. Wikipedia is again the obvious example. But letting the reader drive is only one way to create a non-linear book. It’s also possible to create multiple entrypoints, or even multiple endings, like Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.

A virtual book can be dynamic. It can change after its initial creation. Printed books, on the other hand, are static snapshots laboriously rendered by a particular author at a particular time. But what if a theory is debunked? Or a hypothesis confirmed? Or a record shattered? Or, in the case of story-telling, what if a loose end can be tied up neatly?

A virtual book can be non-monolithic. It does not need to be discrete or self-contained. It can consist of many interconnected parts that make up the whole but can exist without it. It can reference other virtual books, borrow bits from them, and lend bits of its own. For example, if Herbie Hancock’s memoir was a virtual audiobook, it could allow its snippets to be reconstrued into a documentary about jazz. (If Ken Burns’ Jazz documentary series was also ‘virtualized’, it could have been updated 15 years after its release to include bits of Herbie’s narration.) In fact, it could provide material for documentaries about many different topics: jazz, funk, hip hop, Miles Davis, Black Nationalism, Nichiren Buddhism, meditation, and crack addictions, to name some of the obvious ones.

A virtual book can be responsive. What if a reader could expect a book to field spontaneous questions? ChatGPT is an obvious candidate here, but the possibility is broader. What if Herbie Hancock returned to his memoir every now and then to answer questions that readers had left behind while reading it? What if readers could raise flags on issues that fact-checkers would then verify or return to the author for amendment?

The possibilities are plenty, and they are thrilling. The difficulty in realizating them is not technological, but legal and political. Powerful companies – and therefore governments – are hugely incentivized to prevent the free exchange of “intellectual property”. To make virtual books possible, we need not only the technological power of software, but also its progressive politics.


Dedicated to Aaron Swartz.

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