Taking the pulse of "Pulse"

A Big Book on science, technology and nature joins the blogosphere.


Andrew Leonard
April 13, 2006 10:31PM (UTC)

We're firm believers in the merits of participating in the blogospheric conversation here at How the World Works, otherwise we wouldn't be doing what we're doing. So we're paying some attention to Farrar Straus & Giroux's ambitious plan to release the full text of a new book, "Pulse: The Coming Age of Systems and Machines Inspired by Living Thing," via an RSS feed.

The RSS feed aspect means that you can plug "Pulse" into your favorite blogreader software and get updates twice a day. But that's not all: "Pulse" is making a clear bid to be a cutting-edge Web 2.0 application. Each post comes with a "tag cloud" of identifiers that are aimed at making it easy to integrate the posts into other tag-oriented Web software offerings, such as the collaborative bookmark service del.icio.us. Readers can find out which posts have been most read, which have been most highly rated, and can submit individual posts to user-generated news aggregation sites such as Digg.com. Infrastructurally speaking, the site, built for FS&G by New York marketing firm Names@Work, seems pretty solid, a technically adept way to integrate a book into online discourse.

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One potentially odd aspect, however, is that while each post has many links, they appear to have been inserted by an employee of Names@Work, and not by the author, Robert Frenay. While this is clearly better than having some kind of brain-dead artificially stupid software program add links based on keyword matching, it doesn't lead to confidence that the author has carefully vetted the connection between link and linked concept. For example, in the sentence, "Using lessons drawn from nature, a new generation of designers, scientists, engineers, academics, farmers, philosophers, city planners, business leaders, and public officials from every continent is quietly, and with no common plan, creating a global revolution," the words "global revolution" are linked to a BBC news story on Fon, the much-hyped Spanish Wi-Fi start-up. In another sentence, the words "biocentric logic" are linked to the Vegan Society's home page. A blogger's linking patterns say a lot about a blogger. To have someone other than the author doing the linking may partially undermine the integrity of the project.

But what about the content? If there's one drawback to delivering a book by RSS feed, it might be that for a reviewer, eight little installments aren't quite enough to make a fair judgment. "Pulse's" author, former Audobon magazine contributing writer Frenay, is staking out some grandiose territory, nothing less than the integration of science and technology and our entire post-industrial revolution civilization back into the embrace of biology and nature. But at the outset, his style veers perilously close to breezy, pop-cultural scientific generalization -- "the rise of nature into culture" -- that is unlikely to be satisfying to online readers looking for meaty chunks of information and analysis. The first post is also stocked with predictions -- "Soon to come are computers with emotions, ships that learn from fish, and 'soft jets' that flex and twist like swooping birds" -- that sound uncomfortably close to the techno-optimist propaganda that was so prevalent at the turn of the century.

In a world teetering on the brink of environmental devastation, species extinction and a peak oil energy crunch, the case for drastic changes in how humanity integrates itself into an ecologically sustainable balance with the earth is of obvious importance. But there's little sense of that drama in the opening pages, or of any consideration that we may have already blown our chances.

But again, to judge on the basis of a few posts is unfair. The real test of this publishing strategy is whether readers keep clicking as new posts show up (or, even more significantly, whether the RSS tease sends them off to the bookstore). So far, the numbers trend line is a little discouraging, but it's early yet.


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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