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Story as code: Books in Browsers IV

February 1st, 2014 Posted in Digital Books, Libraries, Publishing, Transmedia | digg it blank

Sometimes you in a position to create something, and give it a name without too much consideration; before long the name doesn’t mean what you thought it once did. Yet sometimes, with luck and grace, the name becomes more fitting than you could have ever realized.

For several years running, I’ve organized a small conference called “Books in Browsers” (BiB), now in concert with the Frankfurt Book Fair, that is focused on the design and development of next generation books and other publications. Its premise has always been that digital technology lowers barriers for entry into new forms of publishing, enabling a range of experiences in digital contexts that were not previously possible.

Although that’s a neat encapsulation, in practice the conference’s agenda has changed markedly over the first four years it has run. In the first couple of years, BiB concerned itself with “hacking publishing,” which was best reflected in the cluster of publishing startup firms then emerging. These new companies were attempting to engage with traditional companies, developing tools that took advantage of network affordances to enable more efficient online selling, discovery, and early forms of social reading. They were trying to engage the existing industry; by and large, they failed.

They failed for a variety of reasons; misunderstandings between technology-centered firms running head on against large companies’ practices created to-be-expected impedances. As a consequence, by BiB’s third year, it was evident that the era of engagement with traditional trade publishing had come and gone, and there was a palpable sense that the design and technology communities interested in publishing were on the threshold of new ways of creating literature. BiB 2012 was a conference awash in the excitement of edgy hacks – for example, merging voice recognition with Google Docs, using a git software repository on the back end, demonstrating the feasibility of new forms of composing literature that possessed built-in revision control.

With BiB IV in October of 2013, that era of a new engagement with literature seems to have arrived. This is not to state that what emerged out of the conference now defines, or even will necessarily define in the future, what we know of as literature. I certainly do not expect the zeitgeist of BiB IV to be manifest in an Amazon shopping experience anytime soon. But, in a way, BiB IV pointed to a future of literature that extends beyond Amazon – it makes it obvious, in other words, that there can be literature that defines itself in terms far different than what we understand today.

Digital craft.

BiB in 2013 brought a wide range of people together – artists, novelists, technologists, and those straddling these boundaries – and what the gathering demonstrated more than anything else was people creating new publishing systems with web technologies without citation towards traditional book publishing. People demonstrated new forms for creating and discussing literature, divorced from a historical methodology for creating books.

A straightforward example of this was the Booksprint work from Adam Hyde. Booksprints bring together a small number of people to produce a print and digital book in a very limited number of days – a week or less – usually in a niche or market that could not be addressed in traditional publishing. Thus, Adam Hyde coordinated the production of an open access book on negotiating oil contracts with the input of developing nations dependent on extractive industry, as well as legal experts; a work that has been translated into many languages, and is used as part of the induction process for new employees at one of the largest oil companies in the world. A guide to understanding and negotiating mining contracts was produced later in the year, using the same process, within five days. Traditional publishing does not have a place for these pamphlets.

To the extent that there was a dominant theme at BiB in 2013, it was one of craft. There were many discussions of the forms of fine control that book designers exercised in the past, in both pre-digital as well as early digital workstation eras using QuarkXPress and Adobe Indesign. This was made tangible in the compelling presentations by the European designers who attended BiB, such as Etienne Mineur, whose volumique highlights alluring mergers of physical and digital interfaces, where a game piece, for instance, controls a digital environment or story. This carefree breaking of boundaries between physical and digital, conducted without the pretense of novelty, demonstrated maturity in design that has not previously existed.

Craft invokes the importance of art and aesthetics as part of the message of literature. In a digital era, the challenge is to integrate that sense into new forms of production using digital technology: not via traditional manual hand-work, but by building and working with digital tools to effect an individual expression of artistic intent. Ultimately, digital craft represents a new manner of engaging the reader as a participant, directly and actively.

Gaming literature.

Digital design and expression does not imply, however, that new forms of literature need to be “gamified” – in other words, for elements of compulsory interaction to be embedded within stories. The new design ethos does not require readers to help produce a narrative by constructing a path through a creative work that is critical to the definition of that work.

What is changing with digital design is that increasingly content is perceived to be procedural, in a programming language or computer markup sense. It has to be, inherently, because it is being developed with computer tools. Artists, writers, and engineers are beginning to think of their output as retaining that programmatic nature, not just being produced with it. Computer code is recognized as the driver for shaping and delivering content.

When content is recognized from conception as code, it becomes straightforward, indeed, elemental, for a reader to have the ability to experience a story in different contexts and in different forms – on a desktop computer, in one presentation; or as a mobile experience within a city, on a phone; or as a game through a console. The reader can choose how the wish to consume, engage, and potentially – participate – in literature.

Literature is an ongoing project.

We live in a world where the literature of our past inevitably becomes a context for the literature of the future. How we produce literature is an ongoing project of our human society, and that exploration is evolving alongside our own understanding of ourselves.

As the digital network becomes more pervasive in our lives, there is an innate change in how we understand what our engagement with that network should be. As my colleague and friend James Bridle, an artist in London, observes, there is a growing dialogue between us and the network that we have constructed. If we attune ourselves, we can appreciate that the network is talking back to us, speaking to us in the language we have given it: our stories increasingly can tell themselves. The network, as it attaches itself to more and more of our lived experience, alters our expectations of the environment, shaping and conditioning our own artistic expressions.

We have become something different than we used to be. We are no longer simply artists using digital tools, but artists in a conversation with a world that our network is itself transforming, writing back to us through sensors, software bots, and an increasingly subtle mingling of digital and physical interactions. We take the network for granted; it brings a presence into our world that we assume is part of how we are experiencing our life. You have that experience when you walk around with a mobile phone. Whether you are conscious of it or not, you are connected within an environment that extends far beyond yourself, and are able to reach into it and intervene with it.

This is a new way of perceiving the world, and it must change how we think of literature. It changes how we understand time. Interaction with the omnipresent network introduces a temporal element that I think we need to consider. In other words, we must think about how we live within time’s fabric. This is part of the story that each of us tells in the world by being part of it: we must grasp the nexus between our sense of time and living in a world of interconnected devices and people, and how that punctuates the stories we tell and that we are part of. That is the humanist project of the 21st Century, and understanding it is the task we must complete to emerge beyond it.

The authoritative voice.

We have been living through a couple of centuries of human history where we have understood the authorial voice to be located in the role of the producer of a narrative. Yet, surely our understanding of that is shifting away from the author or authors as a unitary point of creating a reality about the world. Readers are merging into the authoritative voice of the narrative, growing into the story. As readers, we are increasingly choosing the stories we want to encounter by choosing the story elements that are presented to us.

At the start of our preparations for Books in Browsers in 2013, my colleague Kat Meyer suggested a tagline carrying a meme from The Fellowship of the Rings, “One doesn’t simply walk into Mordor,” therefore, “One does not simply put a book in a browser.”’ I protested, “Isn’t that exactly the point, that one does simply put the book in the browser?” She noted that the best thing that Books in Browsers has demonstrated is how much design craft is required to deliver storytelling in a browser on the network. There was evident truth in this, and it became our theme for BiB IV. “Books in Browsers,” as a conference name, has aged better than I feared it might.

We are realizing that beyond the book, the reader is moving onto the network as well. Our understanding of the world has changed as the network has grown to the point where we can be in a conversation with ourselves and the world the network has created. In his talk, James Bridle observed that perhaps this is the network that we had to create – that we were compelled to build – because it is what we need. Our literature is an expression of that conversation about ourselves, and we will begin to see how our understanding of our stories has changed as we learn to perceive ourselves within them in greater clarity.

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