Punctuating Time: Books in Browsers IV

Peter Brantley -- November 1st, 2013

Greatest Dynamo Chicago Fair

Books in Browsers IV – the 2013 edition – has finished, and at least for me it marked an clear change in focus from the past. Convened by Hypothes.is and the Frankfurt Book Fair, and with the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Internet Archive, swissnex San Francisco, Safari Books Online, and many additional sponsors – BiB IV was as nearly complete a contrast to the initial BiBs as could be imagined.

This was predictable. The first Books in Browser conferences were concerned with startups and new initiatives that were working with or alongside traditional trade publishing, as the industry contemplated its embrace of the web. But starting last year, something radically different started to emerge – a premise that new kinds of services and affordances might develop that were based directly on web standards and tools, piecing together a new publishing that had very little to do with historical practice. BiB 2012 was the sound of the future come calling. By last year, speakers were talking about HTML’s primacy over XML workflows; the early experiments with GitHub as a content management system struck a tone very different than concerns over the merits of adding video to text narratives.

In 2013, this seemed like so much settled ground. With a comfort and assurance that would not have been imaginable a year ago, BiB IV focused on digital design and code. Perhaps no single talk testified more to this than the imaginative brilliance of Etienne Mineur of Les Éditions Volumiques, who combines machine systems with paper and print models that serve as reflections of networked spaces. Puzzles that came together in a marriage of traditional craft and electronics, mobile phones and board games, Mineur’s work hints tantalizingly at a new way of interacting with the world.

By the gauge of BiB IV, the future of books is a future of design. BiB IV married references to the deep past of printing and information exchange, such as Gutenberg, with modern avatars of communications sciences, such as McLuhan. The central theme of those connections was craft – the sense that web technologies should enable authors to readily generate bespoke narratives that draw readers into new forms of story-based interactions. In this invocation of craft, it was repeatedly stressed that the tools with which one creates stories must themselves be common, ubiquitous, and quotidian – but they are of a nature to permit precision in the design and construction of interfaces that could not otherwise have been imagined.

Content, it was observed, becomes procedural, in the sense of being inherently machine-parsable and context-sensitive. The experience of a story might be quite different on a tablet and on a mobile phone, depending on where I am, and the networks within which I am embedded, at the moment I resume a tale. This story’s own self-awareness extends far beyond merely geolocational triangulation, or the ability to traverse a social graph. Increasingly we are authoring stories that can talk to each other through linked data associations they carry hidden within them like networked trojan horses. As “Believing in Robots,” the talk of Keith Fahlgren and Peter Collingridge of Safari Books illuminated, we create autonomous processes with whom we start to have dialogues; in our assumptions that they will talk back to us, we architect networked systems that tell us new forms of stories.

Publishing is becoming something anew, onto-itself. It is not an online game, nor is it a glossier version of a Condé Nast publication. What it will become is something very much alive and increasingly magical, wholly driven by networked technology. Mere days after BiB, Google announced an experiment in entertainment with its Motorola subsidiary in which an Android phone becomes a looking glass into an individualized, interactive movie-scape. Not a game and certainly not a movie, but designed by animation professionals, Windy Day points towards a new fusion between people, machines, and networks: “The company has set out to build a new platform that uses contemporary technology — powerful computation, smart sensors, vivid mobile displays — to reinvent the age-old practice of narrative itself.”

And that is the key to the future for me. We are creating a pervasive and suggestively sentient networked web of technological presence. We are learning to use its affordances to tell ourselves stories, living in this hair’s-breadth moment when the network begins to speak back to us. This is neither sunlight horizon nor a dark shadow: a world in which sensed data can save lives and enable local, yet global-range, communications, also permits a surveillance state of unimagined ferocity with drones that hover over us, recognizing and pattern-matching us into state-held databases. James Bridle speaks eloquently of this tension in his talk, “Network Tense: How to Approach a Contemporary, Technologically-Mediated World” and it is at the heart of his exploration of the world we are crafting. Bridle asked with a self-referential cry, “What is the internet for?,” observing that our communication patterns are transforming themselves end-over-end in cyclonic intensity.

Over 100 years ago at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, standing amidst a great hall of industrial power and design, Henry Adams would evoke that “he began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross. The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm’s-length at some vertiginous speed, and barely murmuring … . Before the end, one began to pray to it … . Among the thousand symbols of ultimate energy the dynamo was not so human as some, but it was the most expressive.” Struggling to understand this same tension between the infinitesimal beauty of craft and human expression, against the inexorably growing strength of technology’s impositions, he decried “All the steam in the world could not, like the Virgin, build Chartres.”

Yet Henry Adams’ world of the late 19th Century was built by dynamos, as ours is built by a digital technology which delineates us through surveillance, drones, and a network that reaches into our lives, permitting us to share stories across the breadth of planet, and potentially beyond. Our looking glass phones extend our visions across ourselves and into the lives of others.

I recently misplaced my mobile phone, and the anxiety I felt was not one of the loss of my data, or the risks of privacy invasion. It was a sense of helplessness – a sudden inability to intervene in the turnings of the world – the loss of the sense that I could reach and touch the lives of those that I care about, my family beyond anything, across the arc of time. It is this sense that we can punctuate time as it moves forward that has changed for us, I think, most of all. Years past, we must have inevitably waited for things to happen, one thing before another; today the things that befall us and our responses to them ride on currents that we can stick our hands into, feeling the rush of the air streaming past. Our networks connect us through time as much as through distance, merging the two dimensions into a coalescence that forges our understanding of the world.

This is the world that re-invents story-telling. It is a world of machine-presence where the network inhabits a new part of our souls, assuming the place of the dynamo of old, which 100 years ago still stood an entire arm’s length away. We are struggling to define craft again with these new tools, carrying our synthesized visions forward into the world of design, and as James Bridle notes, struggling to generate new structures of language to describe the world we find ourselves in.

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