Saturday, December 1, 2012

World’s Largest Book?

This felt like a Great American Novel.

After writing more than 2.2 million words, I looked up what  was the world's longest book.

To my surprise, I had already surpassed Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (~ 1.2 million words) and nearly doubled it in length.

I didn’t plan on writing so much, it just took on a life of its own. 

The idea was planted at Union Square in New York  City when an angel investor suggested we demo a new geo-tagging concept to make check-ins more interesting.

He left his wallet behind! 

He suggested we geo-tag stories around Union Square. “I wonder if Fred Wilson would mind if we called it Union Square, ” I quipped.  Wilson's company Union Square Ventures had funded Foursquare (as well as Twitter, Tumblr, Etsy and Kickstarter).  

I had already mocked up the format in HTML with stories at Caffe Vivaldi in Greenwich Village featuring Bob Dylan, Al Pacino, Larry David, Nobel Prize winner Joseph Brodsky, Woody Allen and Andy Warhol.   The design was later altered to look like this:

So one day, though it felt daunting, I wrote stories about nearly every address around Union Square and stitched them together on a writing platform as it was being built by my partner. We had to create an experimental geo-tagging tool and style guide. One in which pieces of the whole story could be viewed individually (and later viewed with GPS or searched by street address). 

It seemed painstaking –  100 pictures around Union Square with 6000 words took 12 hours  to geo-tag and post – but suddenly I was in a rhythm.  So I expanded, writing stories down Broadway, the spine of New York City.  Coincidentally, Broadway is also where most of New York City’s tweets originate.

Annotations on Broadway such as notable lyrics 
were also geo-tagged  @Broadway 

They say there's always magic in the air
But when you're walkin' down that street
And you ain't got enough to eat
The glitter rubs right off and you're nowhere
~ George Benson

Seeing my face in lights
Or my name in marquees
Found down on Broadway
Even if it ain't all it seems
I got a pocket full of dreams 
~ Alicia Keys 

Undaunted, I kept on going. I wrote stories about places on New York’s un-numbered streets. It seemed an achievable goal with a finite number of mostly small streets.  When finished, I decided to write stories at New York’s dozen or so north-south avenues.  And finally numbered streets up to 59th St.

To continue in this rhythm, I started writing “geo-stories” on topics of interest…where Beat Poets hung out, where movie or tv scenes were shot. For each story, I had to find an address, often matching historical artifacts with current street views to pinpoint an address. Soon nearly every street in Manhattan had a story in this Great American Novel.  Sometimes within a radius of  3 buildings there would be a dozen stories.

Bleecker Street story vein in Greenwich Village 

I layered stories trying to sequence them by historical times. Older stories became the bedrock of New York City. This book was chaptered by place and time, now with 25,350 places chronicled at 44,000 different times. Stories were original or curated, but always visually interesting or with an intriguing geo-narrative. 

In recent years, I had also curated contemporary visual stories daily and taken 100,000+ photos by phone (nearly 27,000+ posted on Facebook). I added the notable archives  to this atlas. Included was a  chronicle of  one Artist's journey across 480+ venues right from her birth as an Artist. Now, any musician could find cool music venues following her story trail. 

Soon I wrote about notable work  from around the world, including leading-edge  street art. It felt like a tone poem. 

This would be the world’s largest GPS atlas mapping stories. We called it Jump2Spot - you could jump to any spot and see stories nearby. Not just any stories, but stories worthy of sharing. 

Embedded were movie, music, writing, art and technology history atlases full of iconic stories. Every notable scene from all Godfather movies and the Bourne trilogy were even included.

An official high up on the Apple food chain one day attended a Robert Johnson tribute where I started writing this 2-million-word atlas. 

The venue owner said Steve Jobs email address could be looking at some of the work we’d been doing. This book started with a video of stories there,  helping to generate nearly $50,000 in donations for the venue. 

Steve Jobs was about doing the “insanely great.” 

But what could I do that Apple hadn't done? I decided to geo-tag an entire book to show the future of e-books. You could click links and see photos/maps as you read lines in a book. Neil Peart’s Ghost Rider came to mind because  it had 55,000 miles of places by motorcycle. I had planned to make this the world’s first geo-tagged book.  Anytime a place was mentioned by Neil Peart, I geo-tagged it, citing Peart’s writing there, and added a photo. Strangely, not one place he visited in 1997 from Quebec to Alaska had closed down since! Not even Penny’s Place, a roadside stand. 

Places are easier to remember to recall stories. A great way to index stories for recollection. Geo-annotating an entire book was very illuminating for archival methodologies. 

Steve Jobs passed away before I finished, so I switched gears. In tribute, I started to geo-tag the entire biography Steve Jobs by Walter Issacson. Passages from the book were typed, matched with a photo and map, anytime a place was mentioned.

I then moved onto writing about places in Daniel Lanois' Soul Mining which a friend had recommended.  Neil Peart, Steve Jobs and Daniel Lanois all had one thing in common. They all worked insanely hard. This pushed me to work even harder, harder than anything I'd ever done. 

I’d also been following data visualization artists intrigued by their "insane" work. I knew New York Times Data Artist in Residence  Jeremy Thorp from early Internet days and followed his work and then his peers.   Jeremy helped design the 9/11 Memorial  placement of names. His algorithm placed names in relation to where they last were – with “adjacencies” showing loved ones nearby. He was a poet with data. He's even been exhibited in New York's Museum of Modern Art. 

9/11 Memorial also allowed visitors
to post stories of where they were on 9/11 

In this data visualization movement was also Nicholas Felton who was behind Facebook Timeline. His Dad, like me, had been to Ali Shan. I experimented with his app Daytum to explore new geo-narrative structures - counting where inspiration happened most in my life. The stats actually surprised me. I had no idea until I counted my activities and mapped them. 

I liked Felton's idea of collecting data from scraps of his father's life (receipts, journals, photos etc) - collecting geo-artifacts - and generating a story.   This inspired Facebook Timeline. 

I knew I couldn’t visualize data to match the standards in this field or even work with someone who could. I had no rep in the field, and no skills for it yet.  So I asked myself, what could I do to create something special in data visualization? A line from my first computer science class came into my head: “Garbage In, Garbage Out.”  It dawned on me that most of the genius work I saw in the data visualization world depended on 3rd party data - and mostly bulk stats. If I inputted higher quality geo-stories,  we could output higher quality visuals. But statistically, how many stories needed to be plotted on a map for a cool pattern to manifest? I had no idea.

So I continued typing, daily for 12 hours a day, for more than 5000 hours. For the first time, I saw how an artist like Michelangelo could keep on going at the Sistine Chapel. Soon this atlas could no longer be copied (not even by me). Retyping the whole project would be too difficult. You’d have to give up at least 2 years of your life.  I speed read and type fast. Slower speeds would need 4 years.

Sistine Chapel took Michelangelo four years to paint
July, 1508, to October, 1512

It helped that I was sequestered in a forest for a long journey of focus and rhythm. I saw more animals than people in my window.  This could not have been done in a city full of distractions.

Roger comes by daily.  This is today. 

Soon new findings started to emerge in the writing. I saw stories intersecting at the same address—connections not observed by any internet post out there.  Were they coincidences or not? I called them geo-patterns. Layers of stories at locations stitched together that arrived randomly but didn’t appear random.  Histories happened geographically in patterns. You can see this when plotting stories on a map. 

Andy Warhol's Factory moved  in a straight line. 

Charles Bukowski circled around Silver Lake in LA.  

This was the data visualization magic I had been looking for. It was unplanned and unforeseen. Something you could only see after geo-tagging thousands of stories. I was checking-in dead people to see what no one saw about their lives.  

I started to map stories chronicling the entire lives of various icons to look for more patterns: Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Sylvia Plath, Picasso, Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald , Joni Mitchell, Jack Kerouac (On The Road), Patti Smith (Just Kids), The Beatles (where every major song was written), Marilyn Monroe (photos), Julia Roberts   and more. I couldn't find any trace of Steve Jobs ever having been to Canada.  No US President in office had been to Canada for the first 147 years! 

I started to write about where notable works took place:  Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Gehry buildings, photos of the most geo-tagged New Yorker (pre-1940)  Berenice Abbott, Monet paintings, every notable Al Pacino or RobertDeNiro movie scene, New York album covers, the world's most expensive photos and more

Many stories pointed to new story branches or cool factoids I never knew (even in stories I knew).  

1917 Littly Italy in Godfather 2 was on E 6th St
by Sidewalk Cafe between Ave A & Ave B in New York. 

As of today, 44,000  visuals are stitched together at 25,350 spots with 2.2 million words on 20,800 notable profiles.  In entries, it is already larger than the world’s first digital encyclopedia. I now wanted to create an “atlas of inspiration.” The more volume achieved, the more ambitious the goal could be. 

The most popular YouTube videos at nearly every notable New York venue were written about and geo-tagged. 

New scenes  (“new noise”) were written about: Stories of contemporary street artists, digital artists and musicians showcasing their leading-edge creative work. 

Jenny Holzer at Wawel Royal Castle. 

Soon the most notable photogenic internet photos around the world were geo-tagged with stories. Curations by photography enthusiasts were very helpful. I had to look up the addresses for each photo. 

In Manhattan, you can see in this atlas where every notable writer, painter, film-maker or musician was and the history made there. They defined their locations with their stories. 

Greenwich Village has been a city of writers. 

I started to see that those who become “legends” or "icons" made history at 400+ locations -- people like Bob Dylan, Steve Jobs or  Buffalo Bill. Buffalo Bill had been to more cities than any other person I could find. And his travel was far from easy, travelling with several hundred people, 8000 seats and a lot of horses by train. He even built a city (Cody, WY).  His journey was hard to map. Many of the countries he'd visited had changed names.  

I discovered that outlaws like Bonnie and Clyde robbed mostly small towns and put them on the map. Towns whose stories we no longer hear about since then. I saw how so many blues players made quiet pilgrimages along blues trails. Even people I knew, I had no idea had done it.

I started to see that San Francisco, LA, Chicago, New York and the Delta were hubs for American storytelling. London and Paris dominated European storytelling.  Toronto and Vancouver became movie/music landscapes in Canada.

Some places like Paris had stories frequently added non-stop.
Other places had dry spells. 

Recurring themes emerged usually in movie, music, art, writing or  technology. They created  “the scene” for a moment in time in history.  

I recently wrote of First Nation communities whose stories are less documented and more mystical. Every story added new texture and ambiance.

Soon in our experimental writing platform, we could search stories by address. Or just click once on a phone and find stories nearby.  I started to think of news outlets that could catalogue notable news stories by street address. Forget Google Streetview…See Movie Streetview, News Streetview, Book Streetview, Art Streetview, Music Streetview…views of stories augmenting your path.

Billy Joel at 142 Mercer, NY, 
for album cover An Innocent Man (1983) 

These stories gave Streetview a 3rd dimension.

So that is how this Great Novel kept on writing itself.

Editor's Note: Stayed tuned. See Mr. Wong dance on one tiny block with a lot of spirits of the past. We will be visually geo-collaging these stories. 


Michael said...

Nicely done! Congratulations!! Amazing amount of work you've put into this. I enjoyed "jumping" to the spots as I read along... --H

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