Hugh McGuire

publishing, technology, media, philosophy, a bit of politics.

Do (Text)books still matter?

My old friend Patrick Tanguay asked me to write something for E-180 Mag (by the people behind the new education platform, E-180). I wrote about why books, and textbooks will always matter, even if the interface to books and textbooks might change. The core of the argument is:

Books, and textbooks are still at the core of our intellectual lives. Textbooks are the documentation of human knowledge, an encoded record of ‘all the things we believe someone should learn about a topic.’ They are in some sense the operating system for society, and even if we start to build better and more effective mechanisms to transmit the contents of books and textbooks, we still need, and always will need, a written record of “that which should be known.”

You can read more here.


What books can learn from the Web / What the Web can learn from books

I’ve got a new(ish) article up on Medium. Which I guess I should eventually add here. But in the mean time, here’s the beginning of “What books can learn from the Web / What the Web can learn from books“:

In university I studied Philosophy, and Engineering, in a program called Applied Mathematics. I loved studying philosophy; engineering less so. I found the engineering courses, mostly, dry, and I had trouble getting my term work done.

When the end of term came along, I generally had something like three engineering courses, and two math courses to learn in their entirety, as well as two or three big philosophy papers to write, coupled with the readings I needed to do to feed into those papers.

I usually had to ace my engineering finals (to overcome those mid-term bumps), and writing philosophy papers, no matter when it happened, always took soul-wrenching commitment.

The end of my academic term was an intense time. Intense and pleasurable too, a time when my mind was entirely focused on learning, to the exclusion of just about everything else.

And the conclusion is something along the lines of:

Books can learn from the web that huge value — for readers, for learning, for knowledge, for society — can be unlocked when we allow networked digital content to be itself, to do what it does well — to be liquid, moveable and multidimensional, to be reproducible, sharable, findable, and linkable. And most importantly, to be built upon.

You can find more here.

Why can’t we read anymore?

Heh. I still have a “blog”…

Here’s something I published somewhere else:

Why can’t we read anymore?

Or, can books save us from what digital does to our brains?

Last year, I read four books.

The reasons for that low number are, I guess, the same as your reasons for reading fewer books than you think you should have read last year: I’ve been finding it harder and harder to concentrate on words, sentences, paragraphs. Let alone chapters. Chapters often have page after page of paragraphs. It just seems such an awful lot of words to concentrate on, on their own, without something else happening. And once you’ve finished one chapter, you have to get through the another one. And usually a whole bunch more, before you can say finished, and get to the next. The next book. The next thing. The next possibility. Next next next…. [read more on Medium]

Well, nice in the same breath

“On Reading Aloud” by Sam Allingham

By Sam Allingham, in the Millions:

That being said, there are precious few opportunities in life to read and be read to, and there is something utopian to me about the creation of a site like Librivox, which – unlike Goodreads, which is slowly but surely evolving into yet another marketing arm of Amazon – operates solely on people’s inexhaustible appetite for reading and listening. It seems like a triumph of the old conception of the internet, which promised you access to thousands of other people who were willing to share their dreams and passions with total strangers: a conception which is increasingly being crowded out by more market-driven forces.


But I am more interested in the way sites like Librivox have flipped the script on our conception of the audiobook; it has made us actors, once again. It used to be we went to library to hear stars of stage and screen intone the classics. It’s a delightfully democratic development that now, when we get a day off from work, we can settle down in front of our computers with a glass of water, turn on our microphones, and return the favor.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

I’ve never actually read A Tale of Two Cities, but I just read the opening sentence. You should too:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

How are all of you doing? Ping me on Twitter @hughmcguire to say Hi.

Nanowrimo Chapter from 2006 & the NSA

Back in 2006 I participated in a collaborative Nanowrimo novel, with a bunch of other LibriVox folk. Here is my chapter (from 2006)…which I resurface now for “fun” in light of all this NSA stuff. You can find the audiobook and links to the text here. I can’t remember how it ends!

I guess we should all file this under: “Well, what did you expect?”

The Mystery: Chapter 15

The room was stuffed with books and papers, piles of them, and it had taken Prazak five full minutes to clear the little table of debris and find the envelope with the manuscript that Trevor had sent him.

“The work,” Prazak said, waving his thick hand at the pages with a kind of disgust. “The work it is … untidy. You should see the office in Prague.” He shook his big, grey head, and stared at Trevor with those dark eyes as if he couldn’t bear thought of the mess in Prague. He found the envelope, addressed in Trevor’s writing, with Egyptian stamps.

“Here,” he said, handing the document over. “It’s all there.”

“And the computer?” Trevor asked, indicating the laptop Prazak had offered him.

The old man smiled. “Always with the computers,” he said. “I don’t even know how it works. Brand new… Always these new tools. I don’t trust them.” He seemed to have as much disgust for the laptop as he did for his office in Prague.
Trevor thanked Prof Prazak, told him he would get the computer back as soon as he could. Then the professor laughed, taking Trevor’s hand. “Please,” he said. “Keep that thing. They are evil.” He smiled at his joke and then gestured towards the door. “The lady seems impatient.” Hazel stood there waiting, and indeed she was impatient. She was afraid GLOBAL’s agents would be arriving soon.


Twenty minutes later, in a far off corner of the University library, Trevor opened the computer, got out the manuscript, and his iriver, and got to work.

He was there two hours later, and then three and finally he stood to stretch his legs.

Hazel appeared: “Anything?”

“Closer,” Trevor said. “Can you tell me anything more?”

“You won’t believe me,” she said. “Just keep plugging away, we can talk after you’ve done some snooping in the system.”

She left him to work, and continued her patrols, searching for GLOBAL agents, agents they both knew would be here soon, looking for Trevor.

Trevor focused on his work. He shook his head in disbelief. He was a good hacker, maybe a great hacker, but he would never have been able to get into the system without the roadmap provided by the errors in LibriVox, decoded by putting the manuscript and the audio of the Mystery together. The system was air tight, but someone had left a trap door in the security, a door that let him in.

And once in, he couldn’t believe what he saw, couldn’t believe what was behind this security. What was emerging from his analysis seemed too big, seemed impossible. How much did Hazel know about this, he wondered? All of it? None of it?


He was not completely finished, but he was finished for now. There were more hours of work to do, but he needed to think.

“What do you know about this?” he asked Hazel.

“What do you know?”

“It’s impossible. I can’t believe what this system does.”

“And what is it that it does?”

Trevor didn’t know what to say. It seemed incredible, outlandish, bigger than anything he could have imagined. They recorded everything. Everything. Every email, every blog entry, forum post, every bookmark, every photo posted, everything done online was recorded, associated with individuals. Every online game played, every move, every instant message. It was all here. The scale of the information was bigger than he thought possible. He searched for his own information, and erased what little was there. He was a careful, skilled, long-time hacker, and he did what was necessary to keep himself invisible online, but even with his skills and caution, so much had slipped through. Most of the online stuff was gone, but not the other traces: his bank transactions, interac purchases, visa transactions. Cell phone calls. They even collected voting records from the Diebold machines in the US. And there was more, more than this frightening array of digital information. There were digitized versions of letters he had written, hand-written letters, from his youth. A thank-you letter to his aunt Ada (she’d bought him a baseball glove when he was fifteen).

What was all of this for, he wondered? His brain was still processing what was there, he didn’t have enough energy to answer that question. Yet.

And if his own database entry in the system was relatively slim (huge as it was), the others … the rest of them … the rest of humanity … it was more than he could comprehend. The database was massive, a scale beyond anything he could have imagined. Greater than the climate modeling systems he had worked on. Greater probably, no, certainly, than any military computers his friends had worked on. He could not imagine another system that could track so much information, in real time. It was so far beyond the biggest processors he’d ever seen, ever heard of, ever even conceived of. The chinchilla was positively gnawing at him. He felt light-headed, thought he might faint.

It was too much.

And there was more. Behind other security that he couldn’t crack. There seemed to be no trap door there.

Hazel nodded as he explained what he had found.

“They are recording everything,” he said, incredulous.

“That’s right,” she said.

“Everything,” he shook his head. “It’s impossible.”

“Except it’s not impossible. They are doing it.”

“What for?”


He considered what she said.

“Blackmail? … No it’s too big for that. Too comprehensive.”

“Nothing to do with blackmail.”

He pondered. “Marketing data. To know what you’ll buy. But bigger.” He considered more. It wasn’t just for marketing, it was for everything. Data like this was collected to know what you would think. What you would do.

“What’s behind the wall?” He thought he knew, but hoped he was wrong.

“It’s a modeling system.”

He wasn’t wrong at all. He was right. If they could collect all this data, if they had the processing power to collect it, they could do more with it. If they collected and processed every email, every exchange, every transaction, if they could process all that information, they could make predictive models. They could say: if you got such and such message under certain circumstances, they would know how you would react. They could model the system, the whole system, they could model how groups would react, they could model individual behaviour, they could model every decision that you made, that anyone made. They had at almost complete Newtonian map of humanity here.

“Web 2.0,” Hazel said, “was invented to better collect the data to control everything.”

“So this is a predictive modeling system?”

“More,” she said. He waiter for her to go on: “What does a predictive model help you do?”

“You know how people will react…so you can model reactions based on certain things. You can test different scenarios.”


“It’s used to … what? … to make decisions?”


“To decide what?” he asked.

Her blue eyes were hard and unforgiving. “Everything. Almost.”

“Why didn’t you just tell me when we met?”

“Because you wouldn’t have believed me. Without proof. And we needed someone from outside the Order to break into the system. Our organization is filled with spies. There are only a handful of us who can be trusted. There are hundreds who are not spies, but …finding those hundreds among the thousands would be impossible. GLOBAL has infiltrated the Order just as we have infiltrated GLOBAL.”

She told him the history of GLOBAL. It started as a small group of higly placed Catholic clergy and European aristocrats, technocrats, a number of Sufi scholars, Mongol lords, and the King of the Yoruba peoples. A small congress of the most powerful men in the world. They met and established GLOBAL in 1215, the year the Magna Carta was written, to discuss the future of humanity. They could see what was coming, the march of history. And decided among the group of them that there needed to be an informal (but final) means of control beyond the usual systems of diplomacy, politics, war-making, peace-making and trade. GLOBAL continued to be a small group of powerful men, and the occasional woman – this was a question of control, not politics – for a few hundred years. Deals were struck, hands shaken. Often warring parties shook hands and smiled behind the scenes: these wars were sometimes necessary for reasons everyone acknowledged. But GLOBAL grew over the years. In addition to the main assembly, the decision-making body, they created a sort of control mechanism, an advisory committee, tasked with giving direction to GLOBAL while GLOBAL continued the day-to-day decision-making. The Order was born.
GLOBAL’s power and control grew over the course of the next few hundred years. They consolidated control of most universities, police forces, military. The postal systems, of course; banks, schools. They were everywhere. But with the railways, a new breed of GLOBAL delegate came: the science men, men who realized that control of world order was about more than political manoeuvering. Who realized that true control, a Newtonian kind of control, would come when they had enough information about the mass of humans, who, since the Magna Carta, had exerted more and more influence on the affairs of the world. As physics and chemistry was harnessed in the industrial age, so too the affairs of humans would be, when the experiments could be performed on a grand scale, when the data collection would be sufficient, when true classifications could be made.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Order stood behind GLOBAL and their ever-ambitious program of control. But the grandiosity of GLOBAL’s experiments made some in the Order nervous. Chief among them T. Missous, who saw danger in the proposed system. That all this control might mean rigidity. Though GLOBAL argued it was all necessary, all for the best, in the name of managing humanity’s place on the Earth. But the Order issued a secret warning: if GLOBAL’s research teams looked forward to what they could do with telephones, telegraph, Missous saw what the end game was, where communication was going, realized that eventually the project would catch everything. And he worried about that. He issued a secret Mandate to the Order, that in the case of several events in the future, the destruction of GLOBAL and its apparatus must happen.

All those events had now come to pass, and in the meantime, GLOBAL had extended its reach and power to levels unimagined in 1215, and still only surmised in 1923, when Missous issued his edict to the Order.

Trevor was lying on the ground, under the table. He did this when he had to think. In any other circumstance, he would have believed none of this. But he had seen inside the system. He had seen what they were doing. If they could collect that mass of information in one place, anything was possible.

“But why am I here doing this?” he asked. “Why me?”

“Because you can help. You can help dismantle it. But you aren’t alone. Hundreds of other hackers have been given similar tools.”

“So what, exactly, is happening now?” Trevor asked.

“The Order wants you to get into the system. To destroy it.”


“Almost all of the other hackers are dead. You and a few others are still alive, but as far as I know, you’re the first one who has been inside.”

I’m on CBC Radio Ideas: “Opening the Book”

I was asked to contribute to a CBC Radio documentary done for the show Ideas, called: “Opening the Book.” The doc features James Bridle, Bob SteinKylie MirmohamadiSue Martin, and me, and was produced by Dave Redel and Sean Prpick.

The book has stayed pretty much the same for over 500 years: a bunch of paper pages between covers. It’s been both finite and easily grasped. But our digitally-connected world is forcing us to re-imagine what books could be.

You can listen to the audio here [mp3], and visit the CBC page here.

Japanese Ad for Book: A Futurist’s Manfiesto

Voyager Japan has released Japanese version of our book, Book: a Futurist’s Manifesto. Here is their awesome ad:

Book: A Futurist's Manifesto - Japanese Ad

Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto – Japanese Ad

Aaron Swartz, 1986-2013

I posted my remembrance of Arron Swartz over at LibriVox