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Original author: 
Jeffrey Ladd

The artistic collaboration between Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin has spanned over two decades since their beginnings working as photographers for Tibor Kalman’s Colors magazine in the early 1990s. Using a wide variety of means, their practice, which has often concerned itself with how history and current events are perceived through images, reevaluates and challenges the classic ideas of photography as a tool for documenting the social condition. Broomberg and Chanarin have authored ten books including Trust (2000), Ghetto (2003), Chicago (2006) and People in Trouble Laughing Pushed to the Ground (2011). Their latest book project Holy Bible is being released this month by MACK.

Jeffrey Ladd: Can you talk a bit about this current book project Holy Bible? Had it evolved from your recent work War Primer 2 which is a modern reinterpretation of Bertolt Brecht’s Kriegsfibel (War Primer) from 1955?  

Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin: When we were researching Brecht’s work in Berlin we stumbled across his personal copy of the Holy Bible. It caught our attention because it has a photograph of a racing car glued to the cover. It’s a remarkable thing, and in retrospect, seeing and handling this object definitely planted the seed for this book. Just like the War Primer, our illustrated bible is broadly about photography and it’s preoccupation with catastrophe. Brecht was deeply concern about the use of photographs in newspapers. He was so suspicious of press images that he referred to them as hieroglyphics in need of deciphering or decoding. We share this concern. Images of conflict that are distributed in the mainstream media are even less able to affect any real political action now then they ever were.

An essay by Adi Ophir called Divine Violence is reproduced in an epilogue to Holy Bible. How did you come to this particular essay? 

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin—Courtesy MACK

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin—Courtesy MACK

Holy Bible, 2013

If you read the Old Testament from cover to cover, you notice very quickly that God reveals himself through acts of catastrophe, through violence. Awful things keep happening: a flood that just about wipes out most of his creation, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra – we constantly witness death on an epic scale and the victims hardly ever know what they have done to deserve such retribution. Adi reflects on this theme of catastrophe in a really interesting way that connects with our modern lives. He concludes:

“States that tend to imitate God benefit from disasters… even when they cannot claim to be their authors, because any such disaster may serve as a pretext for declaring a state of emergency, thus reclaiming and reproducing the state’s total authority. And when earthly powers imagine that they can take His place in the divine economy of violence, faith may provide resistance but no shelter. It is not God’s response to human sins but sheer human hubris that might bring the world to its end.”

This extract from his book, Two Essays on God and Disaster, became a philosophical and political map for the whole project. We felt lucky that he permitted us to publish it, as it’s previously only appeared in Hebrew. We’re going to badly paraphrase his argument, but Ophir suggests that the Old Testament is essentially a parable for the growth of modern governance (God eventually chooses his people, issues them with a set of commandments and punishes them when those are broken). At the same time, he points out that when his laws are broken, he meters out the most radical, unimaginably violent punishments. So this reading of the Bible suggests a contract we are all silently and forcibly bound into with the modern state and our naïve acceptance of the harsh punishments the state meters out; prison, the death sentence, a war on drugs, on terror… The camera has always been drawn to these themes, to sites of human suffering. Since it’s inception it has been used to record and also participate in catastrophic events. Catastrophe and crisis are the daily bread of news.

Is it possible any longer in your opinion to provide images directly with a camera from war or natural catastrophes that are not in some way undermined by this?

We both believe that events still need to be witnessed and documented. But what happens when those images of suffering are turned into currency, into entertainment/ Recently we were asked to give a presentation of our book, War Primer 2, which contains some of the infamous Abu Ghraib torture images. We had a moment of concern regarding the copyright of these images and did some research into the reproduction rights. It shocked us to discover that most of these well-known torture images are syndicated by the Associated Press. When we approached AP before we gave a public lecture showing the material, they requested that we pay £100 per image per presentation. How is it possible that those images have become currency? We must owe them hundreds of thousands of dollars by now.

Photographs are essentially mute in telling the “who, what, why, when, where of journalism without a caption and where simple gestures are read, properly or not, as a kind of photographic “shorthand” – what responsibilities do you feel a contemporary journalist with a camera has in bringing images to the public? 

Is there still such a thing as a contemporary journalist with a camera? Anybody with a telephone could pass for one. And the world, particularly war zones, are littered with cameras. Soldiers, insurgents, civilians, even weapons — all have cameras attached to them. The so-called professional journalist must contend with all these other forms of witness. We have engaged with so-called war zones and skirted around the parameters of violence. But we’re cowards and have always kept back from any real prolonged danger. The Tim Hetherington’s and Chris Hondros’s of this world are a different breed. Our role, is to instead think about how images produced in the theater of human suffering are consumed; the individual response to such images. We only went to conflict zones to explore these ideas, never to responsibly document any specific war.

How did you come to decide to use the Archive of Modern Conflict for gathering images as opposed to using many sources? Was there a method you applied to sifting through AMC since it contains vast amounts of material? How did you approach such a task?

The Archive of Modern Conflict is a weird place — a lot of that comes through in our book. Officially it’s an archive that spans the history of the medium and concentrates on images of conflict. Looking through the thousands of images at the AMC, the narrative that unfolds is not at all a straightforward account of war. It’s an extremely personal and very idiosyncratic one; an unofficial version of the history of war.

One shelf contains hundreds of personal albums of Nazi soldiers. We see moments of intimacy between men — we see them kissing their wives goodbye, hugging their children and then fooling around with their friends. These images run counter to the narrative we can morally cope with. We’re not used to seeing Nazi’s displaying human traits; showing tenderness, emotion, desire. Our days at the archive sifting through all this material was difficult. So many dead people. It’s depressing. But somehow we discovered a lot of humor, too. In particular, a large collection of photographs of magic tricks became a running motif through the book. We always pair these delightful images with the phrase, “And it came to pass,” which appears again and again like a form of punctuation throughout the text.

Words as image (I am thinking of work on the Egyptian surrealists), or texts integrated into the images, have played a part in your practice. In this work had the underlined fragments found on the bible pages come first and then the images paired?

Our only intervention is to underline phrases on each page to add an image. Pick up any old Bible and you might see similar notations. There is a long history of this. But we wanted to avoid a purely illustrative relationship between words and images, so at times the connection is quite oblique. Anybody reading through will be able to make their own connections.

The scope of your practice has extended beyond making images in fairly traditional ways (working as creative directors at Colors magazine) to including appropriated images from archives and exploring different narrative styles. How has this shaped (and evidently challenged) your notions of photography?

We’ve always been more interested in the ecosystem in which photography functions rather then in the species itself; more intrigued by the economic, political, cultural and moral currency an image has then in the medium. We’re fascinated by how images are made but also how they are disseminated, and how that effects the way they are eventually read. Photographs are the most capricious objects — way less faithful then words. They can’t be trusted. So we need to be on guard just looking at them, never mind making them. We still take photographs, however. It’s just that we don’t radically discriminate between images we take and those that we find. We’re equally mistrusting of both.

As collaborators, you have worked both in books and exhibitions in a certain degree of success where many of your projects work well in both forms. You have also started your own small imprint Chopped Liver Press. I was wondering if you have a preference for the intimacy of books over the public exhibitions?

The definition of ‘book’ is undergoing a radical transformation. Far from becoming obsolete, the book — particularly the photo book — is experiencing a new lease of life. They speak to us. They turn their own pages. They update themselves. They have been de-materialized. Chopped Liver Press emerged as a response to this. We make handmade books in our studio. Very limited runs. When they are gone, that’s it. For War Primer 2, however, we produced two versions, a handmade edition of just 100 copies that was instantly sold out, and an e-book version that was freely available and continues to be downloaded. The code that powers these digital books is limited. But there’s great potential for intimacy.

I understand you are both artists and your role is bringing thoughtful art and ideas to the table and where it leads after is not really your business. But, is there any frustration in the thought that these ideas or philosophies get trapped by the “art world” in which they are presented and the world of philosophy (another comparatively small arena)?

We are more interested in the world than the art world, which is exactly why we are so honored to have this conversation with you.

Holy Bible is being published by MACK in June 2013.

Jeffrey Ladd is a photographer, writer, editor and founder of Errata Editions.

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Robert Bringhurst has issued the latest edition of what Hermann Zapf called the “Typographer’s Bible”. The news will surely be welcomed by his ardent followers, but does the book speak to a modern congregation?

In 1992, when the first edition of The Elements of Typographic Style was published, Bringhurst was already an accomplished poet and translator of poetry — most notably Haida poetry, but also Navajo, Greek, and Arabic — into English. He was also a self-trained and accomplished book designer, and Elements was his attempt to catalogue and summarize the best practices of book typography and design, loosely according to the model provided by the book’s namesake, The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White.

The book was a huge success. Four subsequent editions were published, labeled (somewhat incongruously, given Bringhurst’s approach to typography) versions 2.0, 3.0, 3.1, and 3.2. Now, on the book’s twentieth anniversary and eight years after the last release, a version 4.0 has appeared.

It’s hard to overstate the reputation Bringhurst and his book have gained in the typographic community. It didn’t hurt that Zapf blurbed the book’s first edition by calling for the book to become the “Typographer’s Bible”. More recently, Hoefler & Frere-Jones have called Elements “the finest book ever written about typography”. It appears on countless syllabi and reading lists, and is one of the “triumvirate” of type books still recommended to beginning typographers and designers, along with Alexander Lawson’s Anatomy of a Typeface (1990) and Walter Tracy’s Letters of Credit (1986).

What accounts for the lasting influence and popularity of Bringhurst’s book? Besides the handsomeness of the book itself — Bringhurst continues to enjoy the support of his publisher, Hartley & Marks, with his standards of book design and production — there are three reasons: the range and depth of his treatment, the quality of his writing, and the confidence and generosity of his tone.

Bringhurst’s scope is wide: the fundamentals and finer points of macro- and micro typography, type anatomy and classification; choosing typefaces and page formats; the use of diacritics and other analphabetic symbols (no doubt his experience as a translator of languages that rely on extensive diacritical support in the Latin alphabet has sensitized him to these matters); annotated lists of designers and foundries; glossaries of glyphs and terminology; and more. Besides distilling centuries of typographic expertise, his treatment of it is remarkably thorough: he doesn’t pretend that his book is an exhaustive account of typography, but his care and attention to detail is obvious (in places even overwhelming). And all of it is supported by well-made illustrations and diagrams. It would be hard to find another writer in English who commands as much knowledge about the use of writing and print to capture language as Bringhurst does, and that he can condense it into 398 pages (in this edition) that many people will read (once more) from half-title to colophon is impressive.

The quality of Bringhurst’s writing allows him to pull this off. Knowledge, experience, judgment, and enthusiasm are not always accompanied by writing skill, and like many academic and quasi-academic fields, typography is not flush with talented prose stylists. But the fact that Bringhurst came to book design and typography from poetry is evident on every page. He is a gifted author used to making every word tell, and his prose is (to borrow Robin Kinross’s description from Modern Typography) “serene and incantatory”. He finds words that capture — more completely than practically any of us can muster — why typography matters. This is most simply and succinctly evident in “first principles”: “Typography exists to honor content.”

Finally, Bringhurst’s writing is a perfect match for his tone. The Elements of Style is actually a poor model for advice and guidance of any sort: Strunk takes an important insight (that writing should be as considered and economical as possible and appropriate) and worries it into dozens of ponderous, crabby, and often questionable commandments. Fortunately the similarities between that book and Bringhurst’s end with the title and the numbered divisions. Even at his most direct, and despite the fact that the book does have the feel and structure of holy writ in places, Bringhurst’s tone is moderate and reflective. His confidence never drifts into arrogance, and his traditionalist roots don’t prevent him from acknowledging that contemporary themes, subjects, and standards call for contemporary type treatments and approaches. Conservative, yes, but conservative in the style of Edmund Burke: you change what you must to preserve what you can.

None of this will be news to most readers here. But all this being said, is the arrival of a fourth edition of Elements something we should celebrate?

Bringhurst has probably taken a book grounded in print typography as far as it can go. But it is, still, grounded in print. It’s hard to believe that a book revised five times in the last twenty years mentions the World Wide Web exactly twice (if you’re willing to accept a mention of “hypertext” for one of them). And don’t look in the index for those passages, because “World Wide Web”, “web”, “webfonts”, “online publishing”, “internet”, “HTML”, and “CSS” don’t appear there. “E-books” does have two entries. “Linotype machine”, by contrast and with apologies to Doug Wilson for saying so, appears twelve times. (“Monotype machine”, in case you wondered, appears four.)

This doesn’t mean Bringhurst’s book is obsolete. After all, there’s no mention of the web in Lawson’s or Tracy’s books, either. Nor will you find any in the books of Jost Hochuli, Willi Kunz, Hans Bosshard, Carl Gerstner, Emil Ruder, Helmut Schmid, Geoffrey Dowding, Nicolette Gray, Daniel Berkeley Updike, Stanley Morison, Beatrice Warde, Jan Tschichold, or Eric Gill. And Giambattista Bodoni didn’t mention the Linotype machine, or even electricity. That doesn’t mean we have nothing to learn from them, that they don’t belong on the bookshelves of an educated typophile. There are principles of good typography that transcend substrates and technologies.

But all these books are products of their times and contexts, and we must read them that way, Bringhurst’s book included. The only new section in version 4.0 of Elements is a two-page examination of metal type (pgs 300–301). “To think about type”, he tells us to introduce the section, “you have to think backwards and forwards at once.” Well, yes — if you’re setting metal type. But virtually all undergraduate designers and typographers presently in school will never do that — in quantity, anyway, if at all. (It’s actually more likely they’ll set wood type.) That’s not to say that it’s a good thing they won’t, or a bad thing, simply that it’s true. So why do we recommend to them as a central text, as so many teachers and type designers do, a book that, for all its qualities, has an easier time thinking backwards?

Of course, students in any field involving typography should read it — must read it — but not first, and certainly not by itself. And not just because it’s grounded in a world of print. Display typography, which surely demands the same care that book typography does, is also nearly completely absent from the text. Even his consideration of type on the screen, smart as it is, is limited to two pages and five paragraphs.

More importantly and generally, though, for all its range and depth, and for all the generosity and precision of its advice, Elements is far better at exploring the meaning of good typography, at describing outcomes, than explaining process. The debates that brought us to what we value in good typography, the questions that remain contested, the actual means of translating principles into practice for students, are not here. And shouldn’t necessarily be. Bringhurst is the unofficial poet of typography, and a great one at that. But what I learn from Robert Frost is the meaning of woodcutting, not necessarily how to fell a tree or stack a cord of firewood.

The book isn’t without practical advice and we are fortunate that it delivers what it does. But unless Bringhurst plans a considerably expanded version 5.0 that focuses as much on web, mobile, and display typography as it does on the world of books, he should let Elements be what it is: a wonderfully written and wise summary of the world of typography as he found it. Surely others inspired by the world his text reveals to us, the beauty of his writing, and the thoughtfulness of his approach, can take it from here.

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Whether or not you’ve been following the saga of cyber security millionaire and bath salt aficionado John McAfee, you’re going to want to check out his new blog, The Hinterland. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the mind of an apparent mad man. This is the same mad man who’s wanted by police for questioning regarding the murder of his neighbor, American ex-pat Gregory Faull, who had recently filed a complaint against McAfee for “roguish behavior.” If you’re wondering what exactly that could mean, look no further than The Hinterland.

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If I had to make a list of the top 10 things I've done in my life that I regret, "writing a book" would definitely be on it. I took on the book project mostly because it was an opportunity to work with a few friends whose company I enjoy. I had no illusions going in about the rapidly diminishing value of technical books in an era of pervasive high speed Internet access, and the book writing process only reinforced those feelings.

In short, do not write a book. You'll put in mountains of effort for precious little reward, tangible or intangible. In the end, all you will have to show for it is an out-of-print dead tree tombstone. The only people who will be impressed by that are the clueless and the irrelevant.

As I see it, for the kind of technical content we're talking about, the online world of bits completely trumps the offline world of atoms:

  • It's forever searchable.
  • You, not your publisher, will own it.
  • It's instantly available to anyone, anywhere in the world.
  • It can be cut and pasted; it can be downloaded; it can even be interactive.
  • It can potentially generate ad revenue for you in perpetuity.

And here's the best part: you can always opt to create a print version of your online content, and instantly get the best of both worlds. But it only makes sense in that order. Writing a book may seem like a worthy goal, but your time will be better spent channeling the massive effort of a book into creating content online. Every weakness I listed above completely melts away if you redirect your effort away from dead trees and spend it on growing a living, breathing website presence online.

A few weeks ago, Hyperink approached me with a concept of packaging the more popular entries on Coding Horror, its "greatest hits" if you will, into an eBook. They seemed to have a good track record doing this with other established bloggers, and I figured it was time to finally practice what I've been preaching all these years. So you can now download Effective Programming: More Than Writing Code for an introductory price of $2.99. It's available in Kindle, iPad, Nook, and PDF formats.

 More Than Writing Code (Jeff Atwood)

I've written about the ongoing tension between bits and atoms recently, and I want to be clear: I am a fan of books. I'm just not necessarily a fan of writing them. I remain deeply cynical about current book publishing models, which feel fundamentally broken to me. No matter the price of the book, outside of J.K. Rowling, you're basically buying the author a drink.

As the author, you can expect to make about a dollar on every copy that sells. The publisher makes several times that, so they make a nice profit with as few as, say, five thousand copies sold. Books that sell ten or fifteen thousand are rare, and considered strong sellers. So let's say you strike gold. After working on your book for a year or more, are you going to be happy with a payday of ten to fifteen grand?

Incidentally, don't expect your royalty check right away. The publisher gets paid first, by the bookstores, and the publisher may then hold on to your money for several months before they part with any of it. Yes, this is legal: it's in the publisher's contract. Not getting paid may be a bummer for you, but it's a great deal for the publisher, since they make interest on the float (all the money they owe to their authors) - which is another profit stream. They'll claim one reason for the delay is the sheer administrative challenge of cutting a check within three months (so many authors to keep track of! so many payments!)... a less ridiculous reason is that they have to wait to see whether bookstores are going to return unsold copies of your book for a full refund.

Here's one real world example. John Resig sold 4,128 copies of Pro Javascript, for which he earned a grand total of $1.87 per book once you factor in his advance. This is a book which still sells for $29.54 on Amazon new.

Resig-book-check

Tellingly, John's second book seems permanently unfinished. It's been listed as "in progress" since 2008. Can't say I blame him. (Update: John explains.)

When I buy books, I want most of that money to go to the author, not the publishing middlemen. I'd like to see a world where books are distributed electronically for very little cost, and almost all the profits go directly to the author. I'm not optimistic this will happen any time soon.

I admire people willing to write books, but I honestly think you have to be a little bit crazy to sit down and pound out an entire book these days. I believe smaller units of work are more realistic for most folks. I had an epic email discussion with Scott Meyers about the merits of technical book publishing versus blogging in 2008, and I don't think either of us budged from our initial positions. But he did launch a blog to document some of his thoughts on the matter, which ended with this post:

My longer-term goal was to engage in a dialogue with people interested in the production of fast software systems such that I could do a better job with the content of [my upcoming book]. Doing that, however, requires that I write up reasonable initial blog posts to spur discussion, and I've found that this is not something I enjoy. To be honest, I view it as overhead. Given a choice between doing background research to learn more about a topic (typically reading something, but possibly also viewing a technical presentation, listening to a technical podcast, or exchanging email with a technical expert) or writing up a blog entry to open discussion, I find myself almost invariably doing the research. One reason for this is that I feel obliged to have done some research before I post, anyway, and I typically find that once I'm done with the research, writing something up as a standalone blog entry is an enterprise that consumes more time than I'm willing to give it. It's typically easier to write the result up in the form of a technical presentation, then give the presentation and get feedback that way.

Overhead? I find this attitude perplexing; the research step is indeed critical, but no less important than writing up your results as a coherent blog entry. If you can't explain the results of your research to others, in writing, in a way they can understand, you don't understand it. And if you aren't willing to publish your research in the form of a simple web page that anyone in the world can visit and potentially learn from, why did you bother doing that research in the first place? Are you really maximizing the value of your keystrokes? More selfishly, you should always finish by writing up your results purely for your own self-improvement, if nothing else. As Steve Yegge once said: "I have many of my best ideas and insights while blogging." Then you can take all that published writing, fold in feedback and comments from the community, add some editorial embellishment on top, and voilà – you have a great book.

Of course, there's no getting around the fact that writing is just plain hard. Seth Godin's advice for authors still stands:

Lower your expectations. The happiest authors are the ones that don't expect much.

Which, I think, is also good life advice in general. Maybe the easiest way to lower your expectations as an author is by attempting to write one or two blog entries a week, keep going as long as you can, and see where that takes you.

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US and NATO forces continue to train the Afghan troops in advance of the handover of the country's security in 2014. The US-led war in Afghanistan has cost the lives of around 3,000 US and allied troops, seen thousands of Afghans killed and cost hundreds of billions of dollars. We check in on our soldiers for May (and a little bit of June 2012.) -- Paula Nelson (45 photos total)
A female US marine and members of USN Hospital Corpsman from the 1st battalion 7th Marines Regiment walk at FOB (Forward Operating Base) Jackson also known as Sabit Khadam in Sangin, Helmand Province, June 7, 2012. The US-led war in Afghanistan has cost the lives of around 3,000 U.S. and allied troops, seen thousands of Afghans killed and cost hundreds of billions of dollars. (Adek Berryakek Berry/AFP/GettyImages)

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On a warm summer day in 2002, in Charlevoix, Michigan, Richard Joseph’s bad luck began. The lawyer, husband, and father of two was walking across the driveway with a bag of garbage when his bare foot slipped in a puddle of water that had collected beneath his car’s air conditioner. His leg gave out and he landed on his back. While nothing was broken, the blow prevented blood from reaching his spinal cord. He laid there for an hour, unable to move, while his daughters watched television in the living room. By the time he was discovered, the damage had been done. He'd never walk again.

Eventually, Joseph would make it back to work at his law firm, although he couldn’t keep up his old pace. By August 2007, complications prevented him...

Continue reading…

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Big data analytics often means big challenges when it comes to data protection. Here are some things to keep in mind when you're working in these environments.

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I don’t know if Highlight, Glancee, Banjo, or any one of those other startups you’re now officially sick to death of hearing about are going to make it, but I know that for the first time in a long time, we’re starting to move in the right direction in terms of mobile innovation. And no, I don’t mean we need more people-stalking apps, I mean we need more passive use of our mobile phones.

Less life lived looking down means more life actually lived.

The trend that strikes me here as being important is not necessarily “ambient location” or even “people finders” – that’s just all we’re capable of today. The real end game is engineering serendipity.

Each of the new contenders, oddly, has decided to go after the same vertical: people tracking. Perhaps this is the more easy and obvious market to first attack, given the apps’ abilities to run on top of existing social structures like Facebook or Foursquare. But arranging serendipitous encounters isn’t always a function of who you know, it should also be a function of who you want to know. Or who you should want to know, even if you don’t realize you should want to know them. That’s a bigger challenge than any of the new socializing apps can address.

Consider this, instead, a giant alpha test in preparation of taking that next step.

To move forward, the metrics these startups should be obsessed with should not just be how many users signed up, how many downloads they have, or how many pings they sent out, but how many real connections between people are actually being made. This is the Holy Grail for engineering serendipitous people discovery: alerting users immediately that somebody is nearby, but also making sure that’s a connection the person actually wanted to make. (It’s too bad all smartphones don’t have a nifty proximity sensor in them that can detect when you’re rapidly closing the distance between you and a fellow app user, for example. That would indicate a real connection! There are ways around this, but they’re far more complex than tapping into a provided sensor like the GPS).

Case in point of what a poor serendipitous experience feels like: one of the top apps alerts me that Steve Wozniak is at the airport, and he’s even in my terminal! He’s having a bite at a nearby restaurant. I rush to the other side of the terminal (which was a hell of a lot bigger than I thought), and scope out the restaurant, but no Woz. I scope out the nearby gates, still no Woz. What happened? A little manual people-stalking of my own and I find his flight took off over an hour ago. Fail, fail, fail, fail. (True story, sadly.)

A good app wouldn’t have even mentioned he was there. A good app would wait until it could say, Steve Wozniak is at the airport…and HE’S RIGHT BEHIND YOU!

So yes, all these apps still have a way to go before they even work correctly at their primary function.

While I know that it’s one step at a time, I worry that the market will see these apps as tools that do only one thing – merely alerting us to nearby people of interest – and will later give up on them when the trendiness wears off. That concerns me because we’ll then lose sight of other, bigger challenges companies operating in this space could one day solve. Challenges that take time. Not months, but years: engineering serendipity is not just about the who, but also the what, where, how and why.

A little history: a couple of years ago, Google’s then CEO, now Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt spoke of a world where our phones alerted us to nearby shops and deals and discounts as we walked down the street, all personalized to our own interests. Serendipitous discovery of the world around us.

Now forgive me for saying so, but a world where Google knows what I want to do before I do it, gives me a chill. Can’t someone else build this first, please? And build it on top of data that comes from everywhere, not just one big Google-owned database?

Apps could start by telling you who’s nearby, then slowly grow, until they could alert you about all sorts of things, and do so just as spontaneously.

One company already doing this, to some extent, is Foursquare. With its Radar feature, Foursquare is branching out from check-ins to become a tool for exploring by suggesting nearby places and alerting you to nearby friends. In terms of engineering discovery of the world, not just people, it’s already ahead of the trendy background location apps. As CEO Dennis Crowley explained, “what we have been doing with Radar is finding a way for people to use the app really without having to actually use it.” BINGO. But this is all such a new game; anyone can still win.

Engineering discovery is a complicated one to solve. For example, it’s a combination of knowing not just where you say you like to shop, but where you’ve actually shopped; not just where you say you like to dine, but where you actually dine. It also needs to know what sort of activities you would want to attend (Concerts? Games? Family friendly outdoor festivals? Dog shows? Plays?), then ping you accordingly. It needs to tell you of a concert only when there are still tickets left. It needs to know personal details like your shoe size, shirt size, dress size, and then check the in-store inventory levels before it ever bothers you about a nearby sale. And so on. It needs intelligence. Otherwise, the damn thing will be way too annoying.

And yes, some of this may not even be possible yet. But it will be, so plan ahead.

Oh, and here’s another tricky part: for any app to be able to truly be capable of serendipitous discovery, it would also have to surprise you from time to time with something that’s just outside your typical interests, but where historical, aggregate data from a wide user base indicates that hey, you just might like this, too.

So how would any app be able to know all these things? Well, APIs, for starters. Many web companies provide them, but apps tend to build on top of only the social three (Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare).

How interesting would it be for apps to build on top of your preferred food-sharing and wine-tasting apps, your travel logs, your Amazon purchases, your credit card statements, your daily deal buys, your past check-ins, your Eventbrite ticket purchases, your Meetup groups, your Kindle e-book collection, your favorite shops at Fab and Etsy, etc., etc.? Oh, and all those your friends like too, of course?

Scenario: That guy browsing cookbooks at the bookstore knows your friend Julie and is currently reading the Steve Jobs bio (he’s got it on his Kindle, actually). PING!

Scenario: When you were in N.Y., you went to a restaurant your friend Joe recommended and loved it. This local restaurant is owned by the same folks and your friend Jim ate the ribs here two weeks ago and thought they were crazy good. PING!

Scenario: That little black dress that’s been sitting in your Amazon cart for 2 days looks a lot like the one this store is selling. And it’s half off. And they have your size in stock. PING!

Does any of that sound crazy? Then you’re not dreaming hard enough yet.

Or maybe it just sounds terrifying. Well, sorry (old fart?), but the machines are coming and they want to get to know you better.

Unfortunately, not all the data to build a (creepy) understanding of you and your behavior is available via API just yet, but by the time anyone could get around to expanding into all these verticals, that may change.

To be clear, the end result is not a scenario where every store you walk by blasts you with a geo-targeted deal, just one store does, and the result is incredibly, almost disturbingly, relevant. The apps don’t tell you about every possible dinner recommendation, only if the restaurant you’re considering now is any good. They don’t tell you about every person you’re somehow connected to nearby, only the ones you really want to know.

Or in other words: serendipity means you don’t have to manually launch apps all the time to know what’s going on. The apps launch you.

They don’t constantly ping you, and bother you with every little thing. Every time the phone buzzes, it would feel random, but would be meaningful and important to address.

Looking at what we have now, well, let’s just say we’re far, far away from that vision. But in the people trackers, we see the first baby steps.

That’s why they’re interesting.

And, who knows, at the end of the day, maybe such a thing won’t even be an app, but an extension of the handset itself. Maybe that’s what Siri and its VPA brethren will become. A smarter Siri who doesn’t just wake when you need something, but who, like a real-life assistant, would tap you on your shoulder and whisper, Pssst….Did you know?

Image credit: Flickr user ktoine

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“It changed my life,” my friend announced at dinner a few months ago. The “it” in question was a book, which she described as orgasmic. My interest was certainly piqued. In furtive late-night conversations and mid-day lunches over the next few months, the transformational qualities of the trilogy, Fifty Shades of Grey, by British author E.L. James, spread among the wives and mothers all over New York City, Long Island, and Westchester County. The series, which began as online fan faction before racking up hundreds of thousands of e-book downloads, are about an S&M relationship between a billionaire and a virginal young college student. What started across the Atlantic as one woman’s desire to bravely express her lurid desires, had created sensual upheaval—as well as an ad hoc community of empowered women bound by their shared discovery of pleasure—in the unlikeliest of places: the suburbs. And I just had to document it.

Gillian Laub

(L to R) Sima Leyy, Jen Boudin, Lyss Stern and Stacey Cooper together at a party celebrating the Fifty Shades series of books in Long Island, NY celebrating the Fifty Shades series of books by the author E.L. James.

In mid January, I attended a book party in New York City for James, who was literally overwhelmed to tears of joy (and alarm) by a pack of hundreds of middle-aged women acting like adolescent girls unleashed on Justin Bieber. “I’m completely and utterly stunned by the reaction to these books,” James would tell me, a few days later, at my apartment. All the women in attendance claimed the same of themselves: forever changed – and all for the good. “You need to read it. You need to do it now. And you need to wear panty-liner,” one woman’s friend warned. Another fan at the signing told James that she’d never had an orgasm before—and that at 43, she had her first one just reading it. It’s obvious that Fifty Shades of Grey has become a suburban literary virus of sorts. And James’ life—as well as the women readers she inspires—will henceforth never be the same.

Read More: James’ Bondage

Gillian Laub is a New-York-based photographer. See more of her work here.

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