Are we in a "Gutenberg moment" with science writing online?

Illustration for article titled Are we in a Gutenberg moment with science writing online?

Newspapers may be dying, and television may be turning science into Megalodon specials, but there is one place where stories about science are exploding: on the web. MIT science journalism professor Tom Levinson has a terrific essay explaining why it's a great time to be reading about science online.


In this excerpt, Levinson talks about the wealth of new and expanding online publications for people who want to learn about science:

I do not believe there has been a better time to be a science reader. Ever.

[In an] earlier post, I focused on a couple of fine articles turning up in one of the new venues for long-form science writing, London-based Aeon Magazine. Aeon is in some ways simply a digital expression of a conventional media type. It publishes essays and features, nicely illustrated with a bit of flat art, just like a magazine on dead trees. But even with that utterly familiar genre focus, there is still this crucial difference: that Aeon is an all-digital production means that it has no constraint either as to the overall length of the pieces it publishes, or to a need to cram its pieces into set frames, one page in the magazine for a short, say, and five for a full length feature. The news hole is what it wants to be for each and every article it chooses to put out into the world. This sounds like a small thing, or maybe just an obvious one — but it sets up a radically different writing framework than the one that I and my friends and colleagues encountered (and still do, sometimes) when working to the constraints of cold type. Stories get to be what they need to be, and not what the issue-budget that month dictates.

(One corollary: this puts a premium on the one true constraint in this new golden age: excellent editing. Long doesn’t mean good, unless it’s actually good, and the only way to be sure of that is if someone with a brain, an ear and a sharp red pencil is available to go to work on one’s deathless prose.)

Merely digitizing words, thus, opens up venues and forms to writers who could never have hoped to try that sort of thing when only The New Yorker and a handful of other rags would let their chosen few rabbit on until they were done. We hear more voices, younger voices, more from across the gender line and so on, and that’s a big change. Thus the importance not just of Aeon, but of Matter, Byliner (not just a science-themed site, but with a lot in that area), Nautilus, which is trying to enact a concept-album approach to popular science publication, and many more. I sent out a query to some science writing buddies to survey the venues people in the business are pitching to, and the names came pouring out: Quanta, Pacific Standard (formerly Miller McCune Magazine, and also not exlusively aimed at science), The Verge, and others that my colleagues are already writing for, despite the fact that they have yet to launch. Older venues are shifting some resources this direction too — I’ve written once for The New Yorker’s new Elements strand, a daily feed of some commentary and some original science and technology reporting under that august brand. Old warhorses like Popular Mechanics, Scientific American, or Popular Science are putting good material out there, and so are places like the Nature New Service…and the list goes on.

The science blog world is enormously valuable as well, the more so (IMHO), as it professionalizes. There’s the Scientific American blog network; National Geographic’s new Phenomena salon,’s stable and many others. The New York Times may be dropping blogs – but in the science writing world, there’s no shortage, and increasingly, the old signal-noise problem of that blogosphere is resolving itself through a rather traditional gate-keeping/quality control editorial approach, updated for new media.

And then there is the penetration of science into culture and vice versa as documented at strands like io9, or parts of the ArsTechnica site, BoingBoing, and dozens more that I know exist but one one-person/one-day-per-day life doesn’t permit me to read. A torrent of words, of ideas, of engagement with science, its applications in technology and the useful arts, and its intellectual penetration into the realms of story, narrative, expression, art, all the good stuff. Just digging through this first layer of links to write this essay has made me happy: so much interesting, unexpected, important stuff out there, daily, for my private, personal edification.

And wait! There’s more. I and a lot of the folks I talk to about the future of science communication talk often about Atavist. The Atavist acts as both a publisher and a platform, and the secret sauce there is their system to produce multimedia reads: texts augmented by computation to permit the use of a rich range of materials, moving images, sound, interactive graphics and so on. You can turn on or off such add-ons, (and you can buy Atavist published work as plain e-books for a bit less than the fully gadgetized texts if you choose). But theirs is one of the most elegant solutions yet to the challenge and opportunity posed by what the digitization of words permits in the way of marrying text to all the rest of the ways to communicate with each other — both the ones we’ve had for a while and those now being created. Other publishers are working on similar stuff, “books” that are actually apps. In such work, you have something inconceivable when I started out in the business: an account of something about science that can, at the reader’s command, reach through the first layer of words into (conceivably) anything that bears on the matter at hand that exists anywhere on the web.

All of which is to belabor the obvious: this is a Gutenberg moment, a handful of years — decades at most — when the range of ideas about science and its connections to human experience can reach audiences that have never had such a wealth of information and interpretation so immediately available to them. As someone for whom this stuff is the Greatest Story Ever Told — as a reader — I couldn’t be happier.


But there's a lot more to this story. If you care about good science writing (and reading) online, you must read Levinson's whole essay on his blog, The Inverse Square.

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Do not give me a set up like that and NOT expect this: