Wk2: To Infinity and Beyond: Google Maps and the Infinite Canvas.

A rather finite canvas

Scott McCloud coined the term “the infinite canvas” in 2000, a hopeful vision of what the internet could become. I have waited ten years for it to come to life, and it’s only occurred to me that Google Maps has done just that. Maybe, just maybe, others will follow.

The infinite canvas is based on a basic idea – your computer screen is not a PAGE, it’s a WINDOW. Linking is a basic building block of the internet, but too often websites split an article over several ‘PAGES’, when it’s possible, even easier, to let an article run as long as you can possibly want.

It’s not just articles, of course. The net is a digital world. The infinite canvas can be anything. À la recherché du temps perdu can run completely uninterrupted. Andy Warhols 24 Hour Movie can be one file. There are no limits. Except the limits we create.

And it’s interesting how many limits we create for ourselves. For all the noise made by certain musicians about how their albums should be heard in order, they don’t supply their albums as one 40+ minute sound file. There is no reason they couldn’t – but right now, the online world is still replicating the CD.

Most interesting is print. The idea of flicking pages seems to go against what digital technology is about. Yet there’s not an eBook reader in the world that doesn’t tout it’s ‘page-turn’ functions. For me, it seems a bit like my iPad having an image of a vinyl album spinning, and I have to place the needle on record at the right point to play a song.

Magazines are the worst. The Branson owned iPad only magazine The Project is an awful hybrid of the worse of print and digital. It was far too easy to get lost in the magazine, as every page had it’s own links that lead to videos, pop-ups and other madness. Suddenly you found yourself three clicks down, on page 8, and no way to get to page 9. It was like Inception.

It’s as if the people behind The Project took a magazine and made anything that could be annoying into something very annoying. The cover flashes and buzzes – for no reason. Other than it looks cool. There are also full page ads in these new magazines. It has completely lost sight of getting a consumer to be wow-ed by the content – the articles, the photos etc.

(It will be very interesting to see if the second iPad only publication, Murdoch’s The Daily, is any better, or if they are still tied to the physical page)

It’s a 600 year old fascination with flicking pages that needs to be lost. But there are things standing in our way.

One of the reasons sites make you click through several pages for one article (something Rolling Stone Magazine online [link] loves) is because of their page view numbers. Those figures lead directly to their advertising rate-card. And money talks.

Also, we are not used to it. Long, long blocks of text seem scary. But we have been inventing ways of making text more readable for centuries. Type-setting. Margins. I personally use bold text mixed in with little breakers (“—“) to try and break up the eye.

Another is computing power. Loading a 7 volume, 1.5 million word Proust collection is still going to dampen your computer’s resources. But computing power is not slowing down any time soon. The same goes for internet connection speeds – another obstacle that will be defeated in time.

I still argue that the problem is our cultural memory. I look at digital booklets for albums and I see multi page pdfs that replicate a booklet. When I could have one big graphic that looks like the back of an album cover. I wont have to flick through and get lost.

We forget that pages were a compromise, not an advantage.

Which brings me to Google Maps. It is the purest form of the infinite canvas.

Think about it! It didn’t try to recreate a street directory with pages. It doesn’t ask you click on the left to go left. Or to flick an imaginary page. You simply SCROLL. You use your screen like a WINDOW (or magnifying glass), and you naturally scroll up to go up, down to go down.

As anyone with a smartphone can tell you, maps are super cool on mobile. They are so easy to use, no pages involved. And everyone I know uses them with ease.

And maybe Mobile is a key. It’s annoying to drift through 6 pages to read one Rolling Stone article on a mobile. The advertising model needs to be recreated anyway.

More importantly, with both computers and mobiles providing different experiences of the same site, hopefully content will become more powerful than form. And we can finally exterminate every bit of Flash on the internet.

Google Maps is an infinite canvas. Utilising and embracing the limitless, barrierless landscape online, they have created the best mapping experience humanity has ever, ever had.

Now it’s time for everyone else to embrace that limitless-ness. Imagine books, music, movies without our own artificial breaks. Less clicking around, more scrolling around. It is my hope for the web going forward. Literally – a world without end.

Scott McCloud is a pioneering technology thinker and a comic book writer and artist. His website is: – http://scottmccloud.com/

Rolling Stone Magazine – a style of web formatting that needs to die off: http://www.rollingstone.com/

The truly awful The Project, but really needs to be seen on an iPad – http://www.projectmag.com/

If you need a link to Google Maps, the  you probably never came across this article in the first place.

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30 for 30: Scott McCloud

30 for 30 – as I reach my fourth decade of being, I’m writing about some of the things that made the three that came before what they were. 30 – mostly trivial – things that have been a part of 30 – mostly trivial – years.

24. SCOTT MCCLOUD

Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics, discussing 'visual closure'

I have been a fan of Scott McCloud since high school. Writer? Artist? Technology guru? Genius? All of the above.

Of all these articles I’m writing for this 30 for 30 series, McCloud will be, by far, the most obscure.

But his influence on me is possibly the biggest of all my personal idols. Every day, I approach work, thinking and life in ways influenced, if not out right mimicking, Scott McCloud.

Let me tell you about him.

McCloud’s most groundbreaking work is Understanding Comics. Published in 1993, it was the first really serious study on the artform of comics. And it reflected the all possibilities of words and pictures combined, not just men in capes and tights.

This is the first wonderful thing I learnt.

Comics don’t equal superheroes. Don’t equal kids entertainment. That little flying in theseat pocket of a plane, with instructions to put on a life vest – that’s a comic.

Although he started in the world of comics, he went on to talk about digital distribution, micropayments and how to distribute comics online. The things he discusses can be applied to any discipline.

McCloud is, in short, the smartest person I’ve ever read discuss the sweet point of Art, Commerce and Computing.

Revelations abound for those who LOVE to take things apart.

Q) Ever wonder why people don’t use photographs to illustrate comics? Or maybe a better question is, why do people avoid doing that, or when they do, why does it seem so jarring?

A) A picture in a comic is not an instant. It can’t be. A picture in a comic suggests movement and time – especially when there is speech. Imagine a panel when two people are talking to each other.

If you think about it, the left side of the panel is not set at the same time as the right side – the two people aren’t talking at the same time.

Q) Why don’t people draw comics more realistically?

A) Because the more realistic you get, the less you relate to a character.

This is an AWESOME fact.

We see ourselves in everything.

Look at a power point.

Doesn’t it make you think of a face?

Look at a car.

Doesn’t it make you think of a face?

Draw a circle. Add two dots.

Doesn’t it look like a face?

Yet, compared to the Mona Lisa, it looks nothing like a face.

Which is the great point of all this. Mona Lisa looks like…Mona Lisa. A smiley face looks like…us.

Look at the greatest cartoon characters of all time. Homer. Mickey. You can put yourself in their shoes. Dick Tracy however, was larger than life.

The lesson; the more you abstract something, the more you relate to it.

And then there is a further abstraction – the word FACE.

Look at it.

FACE.

Something in your mind tells you to think of the concept of a face. Just like a circle with two dots does. Words and letters are the ultimate abstraction of an idea.

There is a lot more stuff like that in his books. Lots more.

McCloud’s is an art theorist and takes things apart. In understanding comics, he defines several styles of panel jumps, then graphs the number that occur in popular American comics and popular Japanese comics. Here, we see some scientific data on the difference between Manga and Superheroes.

Here are two things I love that McCloud has said about art.

1) Art can be split into 4 groups.

Classicist – those who admire form and beauty.

In music I would say artists like Cole Porter, James Taylor and Crowded House.

Animist – real gutteral, expressive, uncensored

In music I would say punk rock, but also people like Neil Young.

Formalist – exploration of the form and launguage of the art

I would say the Beatles and the Beach Boys, their exploration of sound and song structure. Later, people like Sonic Youth, Beck and people who played around with form.

Iconoclast – where the message and the personal experience is king. Very much the look-at-me kind of art.

I would lop in Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and expecially Joni Mitchell in here.

(Of course, not every fits neatly into a square).

You find this in comics. Films. Books. Everything.

More of this in the video below.

2) What the fuck is art anyway.

Get me drunk and ask me to define art, and I will give you the Scott McCloud definition of art.

Firstly though – there is a lot of pop psychology on what art is. Some say as long as you call it Art, then it is. Others look at Jackson Pollack or Norman Rockwell and decide it’s not Art.

McCloud puts his definition back at the reasons of creation rather than the result.

I’ll try and sum up this complicated notion as best I can.

We all act, and those actions have reasons – most boil down eventually to our survival instincts.

Maybe I’m trying to impress someone. There are lots of ways I can do it. I can buy them a present. I can make a speech in their honor. And at the end of the day I could be trying to impress them to get money, get a promotion, or simply sex (or companionship). Boil it down to food and reproduction – our most basic instincts.

But what if I decided to paint a picture to impress this person? Well, all those other reasons to impress still exists. But there’s a new reason – I like to paint. I like the form and I like that way of expression. In that new space, that spurs creation, is Art.

McCloud in the late 90s onwards became the poster-boy(/man) for the Digital Revolution. One that never quite came, but he was an investor in micropayment companies (that are once again getting traction), defined the possibilities of an infinite canvas and most importantly, removed expression from form.

In short, he’s a very forward thinker.

When the rest of the comic industry panics about the death of print, McCloud stuck his neck out there and said – hey, it’s about the stories, not the paper.

Just as with music. A song is not about the CD it comes on (although, that stuff can be fun). The CD was always about the promise of some great music.

In his 2000 book Reinventing Comics, when iTunes was but an idea, McCloud clearly laid out the steps that we have followed. The elimination of the supply chain. Direct-to-fan relationships.

But he also pointed out some of the reason bigger companies are needed. Production budgets is the big one. In music, the record companies have access to expensive studios and film clip budgets that a MySpace hobbyist cannot touch. There are others in the book.

McCloud was an early Mac adopter (like another person I will write about in a couple of weeks) and discusses technology a lot. I learnt ideas like Moore’s Law from him.

But McCloud has great things to say about technology and it’s predictable future.

Computers will get more powerful.

Computers will get smaller.

Resolution (monitors, speakers) will get better.

You can tell Apple knows all these sorts of rules. McCloud also spends a lot of time discussing the web and using it as a form of expression.

But if there’s one piece of thought I use every day that McCloud gave me, it’s this:

Look for patterns.

There is so much more. I always devour the latest McCloud book. Even more amazing is none of these books are written in words. They are written as comics. There’s no fight scenes, or curvey babes. It’s a science/art book written as a comic, using icons, text, graphics to tell te story in a more powerful way.

But McCloud’s next book is a return to fiction. He’s keeping it close to his chest, but it’s set in New York.

Which I am excited about. Because as much as I’ve learnt from him, he is also the writer of possibly my favourite comic ever – Zot!. I wrote about Zot! previously.

If you are a comics fan, especially with an alternative bent, you must read this.

So, that’s a brief intro to the world of Scott McCloud. An amazing writer and illustrator. And an amazing futurist and thinker. He continues to be ahead of his time, and I think his influence is only growing.

At any given time in my head, it’s swirling with ideas – for songs, stories sometimes. But sometimes about technology, web and interaction. And sometimes about business, how we work and where the world is leading.

Art. Technology. Commerce.

And the place where the three of them meet.

And sitting there is Scott McCloud.

Below is a talk McCloud did for TED, which touches quite nicely on some of his big ideas.

And his website is here – http://scottmccloud.com/


Zot! – and boundless optimism in a horrible world

My favourite comic book in the world is Zot! (the exclamation is part of the title). I came across this image in an article and decided to write about it…

Zot and Jenny - everything summed up in one panel

It was originally printed in the late 80s, but I discovered it in the 90s, after I had become obsessed by comic books. I started as most young boys did on super-hero stuff, and slowly graduated to the indie world, black and whites and more mature stuff.

At he heart of Zot! is our man Zot, the mash-up of so many 40s and 50s sci-fi, square-jawed future heroes, and Jenny, our everyday high school girl. Zot is a superhero, and comes from a world of flying cars, robots, talking monkeys and everything that was exciting and optimistic about early sci-fi. Jenny’s life is coloured by real world issues of sex, homosexuality, violence and teenage malaise.

(If it sounds a bit like Doctor Who, well, that’s what drew me to Doctor Who in the first place)

The 80s was a time when comics were growing up. More people are discovering the era that spawned Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns, and Zot! is also a key text. Whereas the former two upped the violence and grittiness (sometimes ironically described as ‘realness’), Zot! presented the optimistic take on life’s hard issues.

Zot has a crazy uncle (a bit like Back to the Future‘s Professor) who creates a portal to ‘our’ world. Here he meets Jenny, and throw her eyes we see Zot’s world – this awesome, lost future we once dreamed of – and we see our world through Zot’s eyes.

What happened to us? Why did we lose that dream?

It’s central to the story. Jenny’s world seems unexciting, and full of problems. Broken families, hateful people – who doesn’t want to escape as a teenager? Zot’s world is a potent metaphor for escapist fiction itself. I think creator Scott McCloud had this in mind. We can live our dreams in these stories. And kids being allowed to read about superheroes is important.

The comics were released in two acts, and it’s the second, 16 issue run that is the groundbreaking stuff – and fully collected in a beautiful paperback edition. At one point, Zot is stuck in ‘our’ world, and what you basically have is a high school teen drama where one guy is a 50s superhero guy with jetboots.

There wasn’t many issues, and every one of them is great. But there are a few that really broke the mold.

One issue deals with homosexuality and a character’s (Terry’s) coming out. We are in her mind for an issue, and at one point, reduced to tears, another character asks the question we all want to ask – “What have they done to you?”. It won many awards.

Another deals with teen sex, and it’s pretty much Zot and Jenny talking about sex for one whole issue. In a super-hero comic! No super villians. No plot twists. Just two worlds colliding in words, on paper. It also won many awards.

The panel above, the inspiration for this rant, ended up on the cover of the collected edition. Rightly so, because it’s come to sum up the whole series. These two worlds, and these two people, meeting in a kiss.

It’s not the panel above, but my favourite moment in the whole series comes in the very last issue. Jenny’s had enough and has packed all her bags to run away into Zot’s world forever. And Zot refuses to leave her world. The stand off, what they say, and what eventually happens – it’s a perfect ending.

When I wonder if liking sci fi and fiction in general is a waste of time, I think of this scene.

When I wonder if anything about life is exciting at all, I think of this scene.

But of course, what really inspires me about Zot!, to this day, is the optimism. We are going to be alright, right? People are inherently good. Inventions are awesome. Life is hard but we survive. It was something great to learn as a kid, and something I still revisit.

Scott McCloud went on to write Understanding Comics, another revered text in some circles, and it’s his last work of fiction of note. He is currently working on another, and I can’t wait. I’ve loved all his work, but that’s a story for another time.

Scott McCloud’s website – http://scottmccloud.com