In the great room of the Internet Archive, a room that once served as a place of worship, afternoon light streams through stained glass windows casting a beautiful glow over the incongruous clash of wooden pews and flickering LEDs of petabyte data servers, data storage that aims to build the library of the future. A similar heady mix of past, present and future occurred in the room during the recent Books in Browsers conference.
Every year, thinkers, academics, experimentalists, and tech startups gather to talk the present and future of books, publishing, writing, and reading. And from that discussion, a broad theme generally emerges. On my last visit two years ago, the word of the gathering was ‘social’, using technology to allow discussion between readers. In the time since 2011, though, thoughts on making reading ‘social’ have evolved into a broader concept of what constitutes as ‘collaboration’.
Consider the shift already occurring online as the role of the ‘reader’ becomes that of the ‘user’. Now, if you’re recoiling from the word ‘user’, you’re in good company, but hear me out. Though many would argue reading is anything but a purely passive experience, a user is more actively engaged with a text. A user not only consumes, a user makes. A user may read a work, absorb it, and then act on it, whether commenting, sharing, cutting and pasting, or completely transforming into something new.
As readers become users, books will evolve to meet the needs of this change. Not all books, but a lot of them. And what do these books look like? Peter Armstrong argued that books should be treated as business startups, testing content iteratively and pivoting to respond or preempt audience engagement. Allen Tam talked through the visual language of putting words on screen, of using legibility, attention, and rhythm in presenting digital work. Etienne Mineur introduced his iPad apps that require interaction with physical cards and paper. Keith Fahlgren and Peter Collingridge described creative twitter bots that not only remix and retweet, but respond creatively (if not always intelligently) to conversational input from others (something dear to this old AIML botmaster's heart).
The conference slogan declared one does not simply put a book into a browser (yes, it’s on a t-shirt). That may be, but putting a book into a browser has created a hybridisation of forms that suggests a future where a collaborative connection between writers and users becomes the starting point for creative works, regardless of the form of its final outcome.