I’ve been much consumed recently by questions of what the future holds for books and expression. In part that’s because I have to give a commencement address soon to an Information School, and I am struggling to articulate, at least to myself, some of the things that are nagging me. Further, yesterday I had coffee with Bob Stein, a consistently iterative digital pioneer; we spoke briefly about the nature of innovation, and he reflected on the comment Beethoven is said to have made to a critic of his string quartets (Op 59 No 1), “Oh, they are not for you, but for another age.”
What’s common in these threads is the reduction of separation between ourselves and the networked environments we are living in. This isn’t a cyborgian vision so much as an awareness that we are living in a sensed and sensing environment of ever greater pervasiveness. Like it or not, conscious or not, we are truly in a conversation with a man-made habitat that is machine-enhanced. Some of that new perception will find its way into artistic expression.
It’s when you consider a physical creation, like a printed book, that you realize just how deep is the discrepancy in evolutionary paths. At the book’s gestation as a container for paper sheets, it found expression in different shapes and sizes, filled with an extraordinary degree of creative design and layout. Yet over time, books became inexorably subject to industrial rationalization. After WWII, they entered the market in an increasingly restricted set of forms, of specific sizes for mass market and trade, with minimal variation in paper weight and color, and of course in manuscript length. Designers sought expression in matters as limited and essential as font choice and book covers. Paper books inexorably conformed to a fixed set of styles because it was cheaper and more convenient for producers, distributors, and (to a lesser extent) consumers. As physical objects – like most physical objects – books standardized.
This is not the path digital creative works will take through the long term. Although we may establish major new art forms – a new ecology of artistic genera and species – our ability to create outward from those forms and into others will only be limited by our ability to integrate our machine environment into our daily lived existence. We are just now reaching self-awareness of this process, naive bystanders turning into conscious makers. Authoring is turning into a kind of disguised programming. Our artistic expressions are compelled to widen; not become more efficient, or more full of meaning or import, but rather more diverse in form. In many aspects, the evolutionary trend for digital expression is inherently opposite to that for legacy, network-naive objects. A digital industrial process drives diversity, not containment.
That has pretty deep implications. As individuals we will have a broader palette in how we paint, share, and experience the stories we tell about the world and our lives. Whether through gaming, immersion, passive visual, or textual narratives, we will be able to more readily imagine six impossible things before breakfast. That’s a narrower world for books, as we have known them, meekly translated into digital form. It means that publishers need to start stepping WAY outside their boxes, and not be content with a simple conversion of print production workflows into digital workflows. We are shaping a world where humans and networked machines interact more consciously, learning from each in mutual awareness. The intrinsic nature of a creative workflow – in other words, who performs the “work” in the “flow” and how it is conducted – is about to be transformed.
It’s not the singularity, but it is a wonderland.