Notes on Unbound Books – A Conference Report (Part I)
Last month I attended The Unbound Book conference, a three day gathering of experts on books, publishing and reading, to collaboratively explore the future of the book and the transformation of reading, publishing and learning. Belated I wrote out my notes on some of the most striking lectures, a mere add-on to the amazing documentation that already accompanies the conference, which can all be found on the conference website. Video recordings of all the sessions were made, and all the talks were also live-blogged by students of the MA in New Media at the University of Amsterdam. Their reports of the talks can be found here.
Henry Warwick, assistant professor in Communication Theory and Digital Media at Ryerson University, in Toronto, Ontario is an artist, composer and scientist. He talked about the growing ethical disconnect in academic publishing. Research has become unaffordable and access to knowledge has become problematic. This is all the more ironic in an age where the entire library of congress can be stored on 14 TB. A new community ideal of sharing texts can be found on websites such as Aaaaarg.org and on Avaxsearch.com, where you can basically search for everything. Aaaaarg also contains discussions and is in general more ‘refined’ as it focuses on theory texts. Their refinement is what cuts them out of normal piracy. However, Aaaaarg has moved location a few times already after take down notices and its sustainability is very fragile. The problem, Warwick states, is that the web is no longer resilient or rhizomatic, it is terribly precarious. Look for instance at Egypt where the government managed to shut down the web. Another development is that increasingly the web will become tiered, where you will have to pay to access certain content. Warwick proposes the Alexandria project, where the books available on Aaaaarg and similar sites will be stored on USB-sticks or hard drives. A hard drive is very subversive in this respect. It cannot be taken down and it has the potential to distribute the files to various offline and online locations. Challenges to this project are abundant too, due to proprietary file formats, the treat of DRM on hard drives, and the possibility of the development of draconic legal issues.
Alan Liu, Chair and Professor in the English Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, focused on the question of what defines a book. As he states, books on iTunes are not books, although they use the metaphor of the bookshelf. Many observers are skeptical about ebooks being books. Maybe we need to deconstruct and reconstruct ebooks to create new paradigms. The standard positive thesis is that printed books are books. There are, as Liu states, certain epistemological and cultural connotations underlying the book. According to Liu, a book is:
“A long form of attention intended for the permanent, standard and authoritative i.e. socially repeatable and valued communication of human thought and experience (usually through narrative, argumentative or other programmatic organizations of bound-together yet discrete textual, graphic, and haptic elements”
What has changed now are the cultural significances of the book in this time. Features that are emphasized now are long form of attention,permanent, standard, authoritative. Book historian Elisabeth Eisenstein wrote about the standardization and fixity of the book. Even people who are skeptical of these attributes still see them as attributes of the book.
Liu draws our attention to the focus on materiality within new book historical studies. Materiality is seen as historically situated and highly irregular. He paraphrases Peter Stallybrash on the navigation of the bible, a non-linear, hyper-referenced book. The codex and printed books were books of discontinuity. This is also the basis of Adrian Johns’ critique of Elisabeth Eisenstein: the printed book was very irregular. The physical book is thus no more long, standard or authorative as any other online form. The rhetoric focuses on the end of the book: the book is dying, it is heading towards a postmodern heath death into entropy: atomic bites. Reading is at risk, fewer and fewer people are reading books. The death of the bookstore is near. Books are becoming shorter; Liu calls this the phenomenon of the incredible shrinking book, mirroring a recent trend in online publishing. In a way we are going back to broadsides. On a microscale this is visible in for instance the WordPress plugin Commentpress, where books have become paragraph-sized, with their own crowd-sourced comments.
Liu states that he is not a skeptic where it concerns the future of the book in the digital age. That is, as long as we keep a clear idea of what a book might be. Books are seen as expressive and determinate. But this is a mix of reality and ideology. Media are not just expressive, or longue durée. Long durée socially are traditions, institutions etc. We construct an image of durable media forms. And the wish becomes reality: the book has become iconic for the identity of people as endurance. It is part of our cultural identity: the wish to endure in time and to extend in space. This is why the book and long forms of attention are important. Today we need long forms of attention to serve as images of collective consciousness.
Liu discusses several online book projects related to this idea, including William Gibson’s Agrippa book project. This is not a book, Liu states, as a material longue durée; it is a reality that the long-lasting representation of the book revolves around the book as a long swirl of public discourse, without the actual book actually existing. The book is a long-form of attention that we as a culture crave and which we need to find in the future. The book is a discourse; it is the whole discussion that evolves around it in a culture. The book is thus not a thing (physical book/ebook) but a long form of shared attention.
The session entitled The unbound book was introduced by Geert Lovink. He stated that this session would not look into the question of morals or into what we have lost or gained—the question of ethics—but that it will look beyond good and evil at the process of the unbinding of the book itself. The unbinding of the book as we witness it right now is very much part of the explosion of the amount of information and the related need to search and visualize this enormous amount of information.
The first speaker of this session was the Dutch/German media theorist Florian Cramer. Cramer started his talk off with David Stairs’ 1983 artist book entitled Boundless, an all-round spiral-bound book, hence an unopenable book. This book is emblematic for Cramer for the dialectics between the bound and the unbound book. Binding can be seen as the lowest common denominator of what a book is. Even if something is unbound it still has the negative reference to being bound. There is a distinction between being unbound and being boundless. There is both a spatial and a temporal dimension to this discussion. Binding keeps texts together over time. There are also examples of unstable books however. How does this relate to the subject of this session, asks Cramer? He states that in the introduction to this session the book is presented in a similar way, as one would describe the web. Within 5 years this hyperlinked, networked book will have disappeared because you won’t be able to read the social linkage around it anymore. Also, this description of the book as linked, interactive, and networked, is exactly the same as the one used 20 years ago by The Voyager Company to describe the interactive electronic book. Everything just has a strong sense of nostalgia to it according to Cramer. In 1995 there was a work called Book Unbound by John Cayley, based on Apple HyperCards. These can’t be played anymore. There was also a boom of multimedia books created for CD-ROM. Hardly any of that is still physically readable today. This early discourse surrounding electronic literature had its own discussions, but paradoxically, although it started already in the 1990s it has completely stagnated and still evolves around the same works and the same discussions. Why did it not expand? Are we back to square one and are we back to the time before the web came about, back to discussions on hypertext? Cramer asserted that the future of this kind of writing is not the book but the network. The form of the book remained rather conventional. Especially if you look at the change other media went through. For the book not much has changed the last 20 years. According to Cramer an electronic book culture has emerged but it is much different from what is described in the conference programme
It has come abound in the iTunes model (Amazon’s Kindle ebook store) vs. p2p network sharing (aaaaarg). Cramer compares it with the development of music. Music files haven’t become interactive, what has changed is that they are now being massively shared, what is shared however are simple audio files. What is being swapped on aaaarg are plain vanilla PDF and text files. Electronic books have moved from the codex to the computer file, which can be seen as a hybrid of the codex and the scroll. Developing a book as a software exploitation of it self is very expensive and it needs to be updated. It just does not scale. Epub and PDF works because it is not multimedia and linear.
No definition of the book is set in stone, Cramer remarks. However, the rise of the WWW as an ephemeral and unstable medium has reciprocally helped to make the book into a more stable entity. Also, unstable formats such as telephone books, maps and the news, were amongst the first to migrate to the web. Contemporary visual arts saw a similar development in the 90s: those who worked with unstable analog media firstly moved to the web and became the first web-artists. The current generation however sees a massive boom of printed artists books and zines, as a reaction to the commodification of commercialized social media. As Johanna Drucker has shown, amongst artists there has always been a profound realization for the book as a whole. For instance looks at some of the most (media) experimental books that you can imagine, such as Raymond Queneau’sHundred Thousand Billion Poems. Drucker states that in these kinds of experiments the binding becomes even more important. In order to remain artist books instead of book objects, a connection needs to remain with the form of the book. According to Cramer, Drucker’s notion of the book as a fixed and stable arrangement coincides perfectly with the technical definition of an epub. There is always a notion of linear order in an epub file. Ebooks are first of all offline media according to the print standard. They are read-only documents, no input files. And annotations are saved separately from the file. Ebooks are the textual siblings of mp3 files. Ebooks as we know them today are more restricted in their media use and media design than print books. You can for instance not port visual poetry to an ereader. Cramer states that this is a paradoxical development, where media richness is becoming the domain of print. Artist books are becoming a main- stream genre of graphic design. Print is becoming a boutique niche of materiality. All print books in the era of electronic publishing strive to be coffee table books, rare and erratic objects. Art schools are creating boutique collectibles as print books become like vinyl. On the other hand electronic books, Cramer claims, are the equivalent of the paperback book. They are anti-auratic. If ebooks become the cheap paperbacks of our time there is still an element of unbinding; not in a multimedia sense but in how mp3 has unbound record collections, not in the way that was envisioned in the hypertext discourse. As Cramer concludes, ebooks have led to books becoming transitory formats. Textz.com and aaaarg have led to books becoming like a collection and a database, like a portable library that you can bring with you.
In the same session Bob Stein, founder of the Voyager Company and director of The Institute for the Future of the Book, looked into the phenomenon of social reading. He starts off with quickly answering the questions asked to the session speakers in the introduction by Geert Lovink: do we herald the death of the individual author with the rise of collaborative writing? Stein’s answer: yes. Is a book is still a book once it gets connected to other information? Stein’s answer: yes. What role do editorial and technical standards continue to play? Stein’s answer: not much. Stein continues with examples of the expanded books he developed with the Voyager Company: Jurrassic Park, Annotated Alice and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe. Stein remarks he often gets questions on why they call it the Institute for the Future of the Book when clearly they are talking about other things than just books? Because we don’t have the words yet for what is coming next. Until that moment Stein will just keep changing the history of the book. He briefly goes through his own history within the publishing industry and how his conception of the book changed during that time. When Stein worked for Encyclopedia Britannica, the idea of what a book is kept haunting him. Conceptually the change for him came when he stopped thinking of the physical nature of the book and started thinking on how it was being used. In 1981 books were the only medium in which users were completely in control of how the medium is used (speed, time etc.). The user is completely in control of the way he reads the content; the encyclopedia was a user-driven media were other media were producer-driven. In the end though all of these media became user-driven. Today we can read a movie actively like we read a book.
Around 1996 Stein quit publishing to start thinking around the idea that we need to redefine what a book is and he set up The Institute for the Future of the Book. Stein sat around with a bunch of young people to think about new things such as experiments with Networked Books (McKenzie Wark). They challenged the hierarchy of print—with the author on top and the reader below—flattening it by putting reader comments right next to the text instead of below it. Commentpress was developed out of this. They also experimented with asynchronous reading groups.
These developments led to Stein seeing a book as a place. A place where readers (and sometimes authors) congregate. According to Stein reading will increasingly take place in the browser, not in mobile apps or in proprietary non-browser based readers, which would be way too complicated. HTML5 offers many possibilities to create beautiful interactive books. That is why Stein devised the online platform for social reading called Social Book. With a group of colleagues he build an eco-system for publishing that sees books as places were people gather. Stein explains how Social Book distinguishes 4 flavors of social reading. Firstly having a conversation with people in the margin of a book. Secondly it means having access to all the comments other people made. Social also means extracting an experts comments, it is a guide through a book. Fourthly it offers interaction with the author(s). Social thus means being able to engage with authors asynchronously or in real time inside the book.