if:book Manager Simon Groth was recently in San Francisco for the Books In Browsers conference. This is the second of his observations from the conference, reposted from Simon’s blog at simongroth.com.
In Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame, Claude Frollo looks from a book to the cathedral and says, ‘Ceci tuera cela.’ (‘This will kill that’). Apparently we’ve never been all that good with pluralism (witness the seemingly endless moaning that digital is killing print, regardless of how little hard evidence emerges to support such a position).
The reference to Hugo comes via Books in Browsers speaker, Corey Pressman, who naturally begged to differ when it comes to print and digital books. This does not replace that. This actually does a pretty crappy job of replacing that, because paper and screens do subtly different jobs: one houses fixed text and images, the other is fluid.
One of the reasons we are constantly drawn into direct comparisons or value statements is because digital books are in their first fledgling form where they imitate their direct predecessor. Print books had the same period of adolescence where they mimicked the form and style of handwritten codices. There’s even a word for these early books: incunabula. Go and have a look. Incunabula look like handwritten books because, in the sixteenth century, that’s what books were supposed to look like. That’s how they worked. Even the most basic conventional features of contemporary books—Roman typefaces, page numbers, and tables of contents—had to be inventedfor print books and it took a long time. From the first moveable type books, the era of incunabula continued for another fifty years.
Pressman’s point was that we are now in an age of digital incunabula: fluid, connected devices that house fixed text that ignores its own surroundings. Our digital incunabula even have little ‘page turn’ animations, sometimes with sound effects to make us feel comfortable with the transition (until it irritates us to the point of distraction). The features and norms of these connected books are yet to settle, but it seems clear that it won’t take fifty years this time for new conventions to emerge.
As Craig Mod said shortly after Pressman, beautiful design comes from an awareness of the container and an awareness of content. Though they are converging (Kindle Fire and Kobo Vox), containers are still pretty much all over the place, so what does great design incontent mean?
For a conference about the future, I spent a lot of time at Books in Browsers thinking of the past: from the many references to early printing to the academics grappling with digitising medieval codices (complete with centuries of annotations) to the idea that an interconnected book is not a new concept, but rather a tradition as old as books themselves.
Umberto Eco is best known for his novel The Name of the Rose, but a but he’s also an academic and professor of semiotics. In his bookReflections on The Name of the Rose (I know, very meta), he talked about the need for a mask when writing as a fourteenth century monk (with my emphasis).
I set about reading and re-reading medieval chroniclers, to acquire their rhythm and their innocence. They would speak for me and I would be freed from suspicion. Freed from suspicion, but not from the echoes of intertextuality. Thus I rediscovered what writers have always known (and have told us again and again): books always speak of other books and every story tells a story that has already been told… My story then could only begin with a discovered manuscript and even this would be (naturally) a quotation.
One of the fundamental differences between ordinary text and networked text is the hyperlink. Though we think of it now as pretty old hat, the concept that any word, phrase or block of text can serve as a direct launch to another document is still pretty mind-blowing. It’s the thing that has inspired us to ‘surf’ text, an entirely new skill that still causes worrywarts to fret and wring their hands (as thoughevery time we learn something new it pushes some old stuff out of our brains). In an ideally hyperlinked world, every word or phrase would link out to something else both relevant and of interest. Everything that can be referenced will be referenced.
But what if that were applied to books? If books always speak of other books and every story is a retelling, is it possible to identify those links and catalogue them?
You know here I’m going with this. Not only is it possible, but some rather impressive people who shared the Books in Browsers stage have already been doing it and they already have a working prototype. It’s called Small Demons and it works on what they call the Story Graph. Every reference, whether to books, films, music, places, people or cultural artefacts and objects are collected and stored in a database where they can be cross referenced to any other book that features the same things.
So your favourite book has a killer robot driving instructor who travels back in time for some reason? Small Demons will find links to other books that refer to the same firearms the robot jams in its victims’ faces or the robot’s preferred brand of car. Okay, possibly a bad example.
As a reader, you can follow your own tangential journey through any number of titles and genres, discovering stories at every turn. Clicking around in Small Demons is at once delightful and vaguely unsettling: at one point I hopped through a series of crime novels that refer to God. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it reminds me of jumping through Wikipedia or bloghopping where you’re free to follow your own bizarre path: To Kill a Mockingbird is referenced in Nick Hornsby’s A Long Way Down which also references Rolls Royce which is also referenced in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo which partly takes place in London, also the setting for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time which references Star Wars which…
Even though it’s only in small scale beta, it’s no great stretch to imagine what is possible when the number of books grows.
Algorithms that attempt to predict what readers will like have been notoriously hit-and-miss affairs. Even Amazon, who presumably have spent considerable time and money on this, offer suggestions that seem like little more than stabs in the dark. If you’ve ever bought a gift from Amazon, you’ll know the pain of suddenly being bombarded by inappropriate assumptions about your taste. As the ABC’s Mark Colvin recently tweeted:
I’ve bought more than 30 books from amazon for kindle in the last few months. Their prediction algorithm still has NO idea what I like.
Discovery will only become more important in coming years. one thing we can say with certainty about the future is that it will be very very crowded. Writers everywhere (both of the commercially and independently published variety) will jostle for the limited attention of readers. Readers will be overwhelmed by the volume of writing available (if they’re not already) and wonder where to start. Noise is one of my primary concerns at if:book. With more books in the market all with seemingly endless tails, readers need a way to filter out the noise and find not only the books they already know, but a means to discover new titles and new authors.
Small Demons has the potential to cut through the noise, to allow readers to discover new works based not on people’s spending habits, but on the content of the books themselves and the context in which they exist. For writers, the advantage of a project like Small Demons is that they need only do what they have always done. If the act of storytelling draws on a tradition that has always been, in a sense, networked, then the technology merely ramps up and extends that network, updating it to a simple click through.
We’ve already seen what is possible when readers begin using technology to network, discuss, and share (and I’ve documented my misgivings about the potential for endless chatter). What really excites me is what happens when the books themselves break out of their container and begin chattering to each other. In their own quiet way, naturally.
For no apparent reason, I would like to point out that this post references Victor Hugo, Umberto Eco, sixteenth century publishing, and two episodes of the Simpsons.