First to last and all that lies between: a book is when you lift a cover to find a pile of orderly stained paper glued or stitched together allowing you to start browsing right from the first side, to close it only after you have turned the last, when one of the finest linear experiences a medium can provide is yours: you just read a story beginning to end.
Text of a poster at The Tomorrow Book research program kick-off
13 September 2005 at the Jan van Eyck Academie, Maastricht NL
to be published, with UbiBook, in Metropolis M, November 2005, in Dutch
see also: links at del.icio.us
last manual update: 13 September 2005
Mit dem Prinzip des entgrenzten Buches ist das Abenteuer moderner Literatur so tief verknüpft, daß man nicht zu sagen wüßte, was denn ein moderner Text sei, wenn nicht ein solcher, in dem die Zeilen und Seiten mit den Grenzen ihrer eigenen Darstellungskraft zu spielen begonnen haben.
Peter Sloterdijk, Medienzeit (1993)
Bei echt künstlichen Gedächtnissen gibt es kein Blättern.
Vilém Flusser, Die Schrift (1987)
A Today Prologue
Like in my previous text on the subject I choose to avoid the definition chiselling question of what is the book, to hold up this printed phenomenons affordances against those of other media. After all, tomorrow is the time when the production, distribution and reception of the book is that of one medium among the many. What finally makes a book does not follow from any of the physical properties of the printed sheet or how it is inked, folded and assembled into a succession of pages, to be wrapped in a cover and shipped to stores and libraries. Over its history the book has expanded into many forms, up to a point where we can define it in analogy to the most generous definition of the art work any object or action being such, as the artist says so as follows: a book is, whenever a book maker says it is. Period. For my own favorite books though I have hardly had to fall back on any book makers claim for expansion since, like most book lovers, I have a conservative taste in books. With some exceptions like the books by Bruno Munari, i libri illeggibili, unreadable books I love to hold in my two hands an archetypal object, I want to carefully start reading or browsing it at its very beginning, to enjoy every new page for all of its unexpected turns, slowly advancing in it, while being completely immersed, subject to what can be considered the true book sensation, an experience which magazines or new media works will not bring you. They of course cause their own excitement, which is equally sensational for their amateurs. Upon being asked what is a book, one can always fall back on this observation, to try to define the book by its true and unique spell, how it hypnotizes our need for information, knowledge and entertainment.
The book is that object which brings about the book sensation.
No definition of what is a book however is of any importance for the Tomorrow Book. The TB is something to be invented a new medium for that matter, standing on the shoulders of a centuries old giant catalogue of hefty volumes which share all the formal qualities of patterned ink blotting, folding, bundling, wrapping in covers. A new medium a tomorrow book worthy of that qualification can only be invented in our time and age, if we benchmark it by answering for it two questions of vital importance, which today every new medium, product and service has to answer to: where and when can it be produced, accessed, stored, shared and deleted or updated any medium of our time being both container and content, supporting any imaginable piece of information, in text, image, possibly sound, anytime, any place. In short: where and when will be, where and when can be a book, and where and when do we, as book makers, want it to be?
Any book that we show each other today, is not tomorrows. This is not simple word play but a matter of fact observation. There are no examples of the book that seriously challenges the where and when questions. We have to find out if it can. We have to find out if the content which we think is there for it can be contained in anything which answers one or both of the when and where questions. Probably such content will have to be invented with the container, while anyway neither one can come without the other. Consequently we are indeed venturing into new realms of literacy, not just about a new object which allows to represent new texts, images and possibly sound.
No recent book which you find on the table or shelf of your bookstore today is a tomorrow book. Since at least a decade and a half which for developments that progress at media speed means a very long time and proves again that typical book slowness, we witness a relatively new book: todays printed commodity, which is thematical, big, fat, has a lot of images and little text in it, and is set in large type. Such books are mere random data collections in a book compression format. Any title could be served out of the <name any subject> For Dummies catalogue, or in the How To Bluff Yourself Into <name any subject> series. Conceived for you to spend some, definitely not lose a lot of time with it, its design is calculated along measures of time counted not by the pica but by the second like any other good or service is measured by its temporality in the age of consumer market turnover. To function within a publishing system which is subject to economic laws of high volume, dense traffic, maximum interaction and fast exchange, the less time consumed is the better. Also to try to keep pace with information offerings that move at electronic speed, you see the publishing industry, certainly but not only in its magazine segment, endlessly diversify and crunch out new titles, new designs and slightly new content at ever decreasing intervals. In relativation of book nostalgia however, it is fair to say that content does not equal text, that other media literacies should and will indeed develop around for example the abundance of images and of generating large data collections in general. Whether the book medium is our best guide in the changing information menu yet remains to be seen.
What the book is, is defined in time and place: it is a function of when and where it is. Container and content folded together, like for any other medium the books qualities are measured by accessibility, temporality and connectivity.
For the sake of our discussion of the TB, we can look at when and where other media are today and when and where we (expect to) see their tomorrow. In my observation, over the past decade-and-a-half plenty (Proto) Tomorrow Media have successfully been designed and installed. Before going into general observations about their when and whereabouts, and possible conclusions that bear on the TB, I will list some examples.
Starting close to the Jan van Eyck Academie, definitely a Tomorrow Game is The Endless Forest by ex-researchers of the design department Auriea Harvey and Michael Samyn. They developped the idea for this game while working on their game 8 during a research period at JvE. The Endless Forest is a persistent reality game which allows for a large number of online players real time participation; Tomorrow Radio then of course is podcasting, audio files pushed to your MP3 player; other Tomorrow Music is produced and consumed by the aid of (peer-to-peer) P2P filesharing and further explored by commercial operations like Apples iTunes music store; Tomorrow Television will find its way on demand to your mobile phone and other peripherals, Tomorrow Video and TV doubtlessly soon becoming part of podcast publishing, already being produced and consumed in video blogs and other Internet distributed formats. Closer to the home of the book is the Tomorrow Encyclopedia, which is of course WikiPedia, while the Tomorrow Librarian can be found in all kinds of social bookmarking, link sharing, tagging and annotating, or folksonomy, as is called what allow such online database services als del.icio.us, while the actual disclosing of all the worlds printed matter is one ambition taken up by Google Print, aimed at shaping a universal Tomorrow Library, word-by-word searchable like all Google services.
In short we see Tomorrow Leisure is here, Tomorrow Literacy is in the making. The latter takes a little longer to establish, since simply filling new containers is not its solution, while it also takes time and attention to acknowledge, analyse, interpret and critique Tomorrow Content. Meanwhile some of Tomorrow Leisures methods propose new learning and develop new content in the making. As entertainment oriented as most peer-to-peer systems may be, in their use arise new appreciations of information and knowledge and new ways of navigation, storage and research.
Any Tomorrow Container or Tomorrow Content, in order to enhance Tomorrow Literacy or to cater for Tomorrow Leisure, should be open to multiple edits, random access, real time streaming and/or on demand delivery, peer supported production, recommendation and distribution.
Proceeding from this observation which certainly pertains for the new media which we hold up the book against the when and whereabouts of new containers and content might inform the special container and content which we know as the book. The TB being the book which has full relevance and a distinct role in relationship to any new content and new containers taking shape in new media.
The Tomorrow Container
The book is a solid container. This is the prime reason that we can firmly hold on to it. Anytime when we grab for it, this book is that same book which it was the last time when we reached for it. We want to trust that it will be there in more or less the same state after decades, maybe even centuries. We want to be able to fall back on it. We want our childrens children to be able to fall back on it. Its solidity is one of the books wonderful advantages. It contains whatever it contains for a very long time. The book is indeed slow. What makes books dynamic and updates their value is when and where they are taken up by us. Or when and where, at which occasion, we want to refresh our acquaintance with them. Or when and where someone sets out to redefine them for tomorrow. Books become dynamic in their use. If left alone they turn their backs to us and remain silent.
The dynamic of a book depends on someone picking it up, flipping through it, learning from it, telling other people about it, quoting it, re-introducing it to who already know it, or introducing it to any new interest group, connecting it to other containers with which that book should form a relevant relationship, possibly at the formal level of container design or at the content level of whatever it is about.
So even while every book essentially is its own dummy, in the sense that it does not speak all by itself neither does anyone but the original author, book maker and/or publisher speak through it after that it has been printed, bound and distributed... it allows for an endless dynamic of secondary literature to form around it: readings, appropriations, quotations, redesigns and reconnections. Even if none of this happens, a book still might echo deep in the thoughts and work of anyone who has ever laid hands on it. We remember books longer than we remember less stable media.
In order to be one of Tomorrows Containers the book needs to be taken up, referred to, recommended and updated with the help of any of its amateurs. The conception and design of the TB incorporates the design of (the conditions for) its dynamic consultation, reference, quotation and interpretation. For this not only do we need many titles, we also need many copies per title, many channels of distribution, many displays, windows and shelves, and a highly efficient recycling technology, just like for any other natural resource depleting good. In addition to such demands for its physical conditions, the book should draw from that never depleting resource which is human understanding, (dis-)agreement and intellectual debate. Tomorrow Content therewith is the one thing the book maker is least to worry about. While its container qualities depend on our attention, ingenuity and generosity; while the book radically depends on how we re-invent it vis-à-vis strong Tomorrow Competition of other media, for any medium-to-be abundant content is available, at any level of interest. In order not to be left with the crumbs falling off dynamic media, and to anticipate its tomorrow challenge, the book will have to shape up to some of the specific qualities of such emerging content.
When and where we see develop Tomorrow Content, it however often seems hard to imagine that slow and unalterable dear dummy-of-a-book to contain it. In order not to be formal about the medium, in order not to invent just another designer theme, that would lend itself for media sprawl, ink patterns on paper sheets folded into quarts or eighths, stitched together to be glued into our memories, in order to develop the medium with the content that might need it, we take a closer look at content development. The mechanisms of [content - context - text] production today are completely different from yesterday. Most of such content is meanwhile published with complete disregard of book culture, however it often bears echos of it, in its formal and aesthetic presentation. Early Internet and web publications were little more than printed matter moved to a screen, with some links added where the footnotes used to be. More importantly, once such publications were up, they remained unaltered, their last updated dates reminding of the mention of first edition marks in printed media. When book makers started to make networked publications they suffered what McLuhan called the rearview mirror effect. Books online: if ever there is a publishing anomalie, it is there. New media at their onset only implied that in order to decently read a text, you were obliged to print it out yourself. Actually the rise of the Portable Document Format, or PDF, is a later move for control over the representation of text, in its proper lay-out, type specifications and image/text juxtaposition included. While of course electronic text follows completely different rules in networked media. Optical Character Recognition, or OCR, being at the forefront of a reduction of typographical specificities. The OCR program pays no attention to the kind of typeface with which a text is presented. It translates it into easy to manipulate and re-edit strings of characters. Only since this new flexibility of the presentation of text and images sank in with authors and designers, new content started to develop which precisely uses the unstability of the media to emphasize the unstability of the content.
The Tomorrow Content
Even measured along a most restricted definition of content, the book today contains only a minor fraction of it.
While the book does not change unless in our hands, by word of mouth or at the initiative of any other re-exposure, some new content is especially designed to change, either by human intervention, or by a self generating process which has been programmed into its software. Such today content will not be the same tomorrow. It is contained in unstable media. If content has changed through human intervention, for example in any multi-author networked publication, or in the example of The Endless Forest or another networked game environment, we will only find out about its new status when we reconnect to it. Much of todays content by itself changes into tomorrow and day-after-tomorrow content. Any open source or open intervention content shows new detail at every new inspection.
Another cause for contemporary content dynamic, of a different kind, is the explosive production of it in all areas of cultural production. It is completely disrespectful of old medias production and organisational schemes, hierarchies, or institutional support. Content wants to be free. Especially in music and photography, increasingly in video, of course in writing, neccessarily in programming: we witness the production and delivery of [information - content] almost non-stop. Recent estimation at Technorati has measured the growth of weblogs at 80.000 per day or 1 per second, and weblog posts at 900.000 new posts per day. Behind such numbers, even if they leave us with just a suggestion of the quantitative development of content production, it is not hard to imagine [producers - makers], and [consumers - readers], between whom the exchange of a reasonable percentage of quality publications can be supposed.
Respecting the rate of contemporary content production and answering to its wild dynamic the book will not mimic such anxiety in pure volume, or lock it in thematic straightjackets, but research the underlying principles and mechanisms to find itself a profitable position in the publishing food chain.
To conclude these thoughts I return to the notes which were added to the first part of my inquiries into the book and to another project close to home at this institution. Some traditional book content will for ever flow into its pages. Long texts, linear narratives, fixed stories and a variety of content which for whatever reason depends on a tangible material interface will find in text, image, in ink on paper and board their ultimate expression. Some of the books content will benefit from a direct connection to unstable information. Such information lives in networked media. It can be unstable for many reasons. The two most common are: 1) the information rapidly ages and becomes obsolete so it has to be updated and/or added to when new relevant material becomes available; 2) necessary additional information is optimally represented in a non-linear and/or interactive format, contains time-based data or gains from free intervention. For the latter case we witness the most urgent and interesting publishing of today, when stable and unstable media combine and are brought to us in the everyday environment, far away from the desktop or library.
If information with superior format and readability in the printed book is to be linked to information which has its superior format and accessibility in a different medium, clever attention has to be paid to the design of the link. Links between material and information reality do not easily follow through. A URL on a book cover is only a modest start. In another current Jan van Eyck supported presentation more than 300 international project proposals for linking information space to the everyday environment are on display, with a truly interactive interface. At Stroom Art and Architecture in The Hague 4 researchers, teamed together in Team Science Fiction, have re-opened the database that contains the proposols submitted tot the Fusedspace contest. For Welcome to Fusedspace Database three pavillions were built, each containing a database terminal and covered with images, text and machine readable barcodes. The original database had been put out to a rather slow web interface with cumbersome navigation. Already for their first presentation the design team had produced a bound pile of paper which gave access to all 307 entries, images and full text in a basic hierarchical lay-out. Having spent quite some time as one of the jurors with the projects, I was struck by the immediacy of information handling for this large data collection. Flipping print-outs... In the design process for the exhibition they again re-edited the database, adding a complete new set of handles, keywords and categories, which supports the final access to the projects by thematic trajectories. The four of them spent a lot of time to review and interpret the entries, building on top of the existing database, adding hundreds of tags which would serve the access to the project descriptions. In the end the exhibition consists of 6 information walls covered with original project material and barcodes which can be read with palmtop computers containing additional information. The three large screen database terminal tables inside the pavillions have three large lit buttons on them, for TEXT, IMAGE and TRAJECTORY, which pass at a variable speed and can be stopped at will, steered by a trackball.
Content wants to be free, but it has to be contained in order to be readable in the first place. Welcome to Fusedspace Database shows that we can successfully reformat content made for one medium into another, into several others, even gaining accessibility, if we respect and amplifie the typical affordances of the applied media. Designing containers in any media increasingly has become a way to edit content, which in other times followed completely different trajectories from its source to its destination. Such new editions find a new readership, which follows its own trajectory and appreciates an accessible and stylish acknowledgement of the freedom to nourish their need for information, learning and entertainment. It is to this Tomorrow Readership that the Tomorrow Book will make sense.