Booking the future

Bob Stein's presentation to the IOCT last night was superb. Bob is the driving force behind the Institute for the Future of the Book – an organisation dedicated to examining the ways in which we might write and read in the future – a subject close to the heart of the transliterati.


Bob gave us an account of how he had got to where he is now and where he sees the future going. I won’t give a blow by blow account of the talk- though I believe he’s planning on mounting his presentation – but I do want to reflect on some moments.
The first thing to really strike me was his depiction of a book as a “user driven” medium rather than a “producer driven” medium such as film or television. What he means by that is that once you have a book in your hand you have a lot of control over how you interact with it. You can read pages in whatever order seems most useful to you, spend as long or as little as you like on a section, can even amend sections by scribbling on them. Compare that to watching a television show or a film where basically you have to take what is given to you.
Now, clearly, the demarcations are not as clear as all that these days; TIVO and DVD give enormous control over audio-visual media and websites such as YouTube, Bubbleply and Mojiti enable ways of interacting with video which are fundamentally user-driven. That said, his point is that the book is far more flexible, interactive medium than it is often given credit for. It’s not exactly uncommon to point out that hypertext can be more controlling than a book because the navigation depends on what the author/programmer allows. His implicit point is that in order to understand the future of the book you need to understand its present.
He also showed us examples of many of the CD-ROM “interactive books” that he had worked on during the 90s. One thing that fascinated me was the way he had zeroed in on something that I worked with a lot during my hypermedia ethnography projects: the integration of source material and authored texts. For example, if one is writing an account of a group then it is just so much richer if one can include the “data” that ones ideas are drawn from. (I’ve started to work through an account of some of these issues on a tiddlywiki).
The problem we found is that ones ideas never map on a one to one basis from any one piece of data. Occasionally in ethnography, there’s a realisation that strikes you in mid-fieldwork – an ethnographic moment – but a lot of the material in any authored interpretation does not emerge neatly from any one or more pieces of data. The process is far more chaotic than that.
The more general thing I noticed about the CD-ROMs that Bob showed is that they all attempted to extend the book by adding “source texts” to it. Thus the book consisted of the book text plus its references.
Bob later, however, made the remark that he realised that what the future of the book really was about was people. Or, to paraphrase, “It’s the network, stupid!”. Books are, really, about readers. For this reason, the institutes latest and most compelling books are online texts with the ability to comment. For example, Gam3r 7h30ry” consists of an online text with a myriad of comments. Apparently the printed version of the text will have some of these comments as footnotes.
The thing that really struck me there was a flashback to my undergraduate days. When going to the library to get a book to read, I would preferentially choose books with comments in. I found the comments – providing they didn’t make the text illegible – to be a really handy way into the book. I know that the library was full of signs about how comments were defacings of books. I found them to be great insights. Not always. Once in a while you would find a book which had whole pages underlined to no great effect that I could discern. Some comments, were however, golden.
This notion of the book, for me, indicated that the printed book might be best seen as just an element in the metatext that was the book. Each printed version is just one fixing of the text. Perhaps the online version was the living, breathing, useful book with an occasional printed text providing a useful reference point.
Moving into the future, Bob presented an open-source program called “Sophie“. In some ways, Sophie reminded me of Director with two major differences. One is that it seemed to be usable by non-programmers. I’ve worked with Director and Authorware and they are intensely demanding. The other is that it is open source. The PDF I’ve linked to gives an overview of the rationale behind the program.
Sophie is the fourth iteration of a program on a trajectory towards providing relatively usable authoring tools. I’m not completely convinced though I’m really looking forward to trying it. It is not a browser based tool; rather it uses a web connection to stream content. Possibly not dissimilar to SMiL I suspect. I think it’s probably still too complex for anyone but enthusiasts. However, as enthusiasts take it up, ways to make it more accessible will emerge. I suspect as well that we its fundamental metaphor (essentially a book with timeline so that you can match audio-video to text) may prove to be limited for future forms that are “born digital”. I’ve a feeling that books with timelines may actually emerge from mashups of ebooks and web2.0 audio-video. Still, Sophie looks like something I really wish existed back in 2002 when I was on a project that wanted some sort of relatively simple program that would enable us to link media.
The whole presentation was fascinating. The audience was intrigued throughout and it has certainly re-energised my interest in scholarly hypermedia.

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4 thoughts on “Booking the future

  1. Sophie – multimedia authoring for the masses?

    Bob Stein (from the Institute for the Future of the Book) gave a great lecture in the IOCT this week that Bruce Mason has blogged here.
    Aside from the obvious enthusiasm Bob has for thinking about the issues around how people read and interact with mu…

  2. Sophie is an application; like pretty much every other application. It happens to be platform portable – depending a touch on the actual platform’s capabilities, installed versions of facilities such as Quicktime etc – because it is built from Squeak. Whilst it *is* technically possible to use sometihng like Sophie within a browser one has to wonder why anyone of sound mind would want to. There’s nothing to gain except the pain of coping with IE7’s latest irritations and the reduced performance.
    The content can be ‘in’ the book or accessed across the net.
    Books can be embedded within books. Comments can be added by readers, exported and shared with classmates, teachers or friends.
    It really is a *lot* more than Director.

  3. I must say that Sophie does look really interesting. I’ve been following what can be thought of as new media authoring packages with their different metaphors for a while. For example, Authorware with its flowline, director with a timeline, Storyspace with its notion of spaces to create, Hypercard as, um, cards. The little glimpse of Sophie I saw did have a really interesting interaction between the book metaphor and the timeline.

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