Category Archives: future

if:book london… tomorrow the stars

We’ve now launched a website for if:book london, the British iteration of the Institute, at, and that links both to this blog and one which will focus on UK activities and in particular our work with the literature sector following a very positive reception by Arts Council England to the report by Mary and I: read:write – digital possibilities for literature and the imminent launch of another report, digital livings, how new media writers do, can and could make their way in the world , commissioned by the Institute of Creative Technologies at De Montfort University. We will be making both reports available to download as soon as possible.
I think this if:book blog is wonderful, stimulating, challenging, brilliant – and so somewhat daunting to post on. It has a strong sense of itself and, tell me if you disagree, but it doesn’t feel right to me to start bombarding this space with discussion of very specific issues to do with the UK literary scene and the organisations which work around it. Which isn’t to say that some posts shouldn’t appear in both places.
One reason I’m hesitant about writing here is uncertainty about who I’m talking to.
I would love to know more about if:book readers and wonder if some might be prepared to step forward and tell us briefly about themselves and why they keep an eye on this place.
I would love to see an anthology of if:book’s best bits, in print on page or screen. People have been writing serious, lengthy essays here, some of which quickly stimulate much attention, others drift by unnoticed like leaves in the blogflow and deserve fuller consideration.
Meanwhile Sara Lloyd, Head of digital publishing at Pan Macmillan in the UK quotes if:book in a fascinating book publishers manifesto for the 21st century. You can download it from It’s more evidence that the future of the book may be arriving shortly in the NOW and, having led the way up to this point, now is a good moment for the Institute to reflect further on what role(s) it wishes to play in a rapidly changing landscape, whether it should be looking much further ahead for next big futurethings or focusing on specific interventions in distribution and creation in the digital here and now.
However on the ‘it’ll-never-catch-on’ front, Doctor Who, Britain’s favourite time traveller, is trapped on a gigantic planet-sized library on BBC 1 this week. Electronic librarians oversee rows of very conventional looking dusty tomes and death lurks in the shadows. The Doctor has already told us how, despite all the advances in technology, future life forms still love nothing better than the smell and feel of a proper old book. No sign of the great grandchildren of Kindle here yet then, but it is only episode one. More next week!

tomorrow and tomorrow

The future has only been a topic of interest for a relatively short while.
For most of time the future was likely to be pretty much like the past except we’d be dead then and replaced by replica offspring – same job, same village, same stories. Utopia was in heaven not a century hence and the gods were our time lords. When exactly did we start to picture fantastical possibilities to come? I grew up in a generation where everyone looked to space travel and videophones around the corner with excitement and trepidation. Tomorrow’s World was a BBC TV show where bizarre prototype inventions were revealed and we prepared to live on capsule meals and drift around our (bookshelfless) spacepods in smooth lycra jump suits.

Now we don’t expect to wait for new gizmos. The Millennium celebration led to more futuregazing of the glibbest kind. Everywhere were teams of youngsters singing hymns to a harmonious, multicultural, tolerant tomorrow. Then 9/11. And in 2008 the whole planet is fretting as a new day suddenly dawns of rising food prices and sea levels. Tomorrow has come after all rather suddenly and it isn’t smiling.
In this context The Book of the Future sounds like some superheroic accoutrement, nostalgically space aged, something Batman keeps tucked down his utility belt, a magical entity that might just help to save the planet: a bleeping symbol of meaning and quality in a chaotic, cruel world.
O, all powerful Internet, come to my aid! I’m in need of further reading on the history of the future.
All suggestions welcome.

future boy

The picture is of a Futurizer, based on the kinds of contraption I built as a child from cardboard, balsa wood and string which allowed me to communicate with other planets and centuries. It was reconstructed by a group of us at a conference on Transliteracy at the Institute of Creative Technologies at De Montfort University, organised by PART. The aim of the day was to try to make some transliterate objects and in so doing consider if such things can, could or should exist. We had an enjoyable if inconclusive time grappling with this.
Plug headphones into an iPod or XBox and you will be able to listen to one of a large but finite range of sounds. Plug headphones into a cardboard box and you can (not) hear anything you can possibly imagine. Travelling back through the years to my childhood, these machines allowed me to think across time and space, out of the (cardboard) box. They were also a means of engaging with the TV I loved, in a bygone era when no adult expressed any interest in the way I read my TV21 comic or consumed Thunderbirds and The Man From Uncle.
Unlike those friends who screwed together bits of meccanno to build working bridges, or fiddled with circuit boards until bulbs lit up, my games were all about interfaces.
I never worried for a moment about how these things might actually work. Now a lot of inventiveness is once again going into cutting and sticking, playing with FaceBook applications and YouTube clips like we used Corn Flake packets and sticky-backed plastic. Isn’t it great, living here in the future?
By the end of the day the Futurizer had been photographed and uploaded to Second Life. a fitting place for it to end up really: transmogrified, transliterated, futurized.

the future of media companies

Every day we hear more reports about how media / hardware/ distribution companies are ever more frequently expanding horizontally (going into new categories) as well as vertically (going into more parts of their production/distribution chain).
In that, Amazon launched a download video service. MySpace opens a music store to compete with Apple’s iTunes and is also considering the creation of a print magazine. HarperCollins is selling downloadable media on their website. These are just a few examples.
What will the future of media publishing look like? How close are we from having only a few multi-national companies that produce the hardware, media and distribution? What are the other options?
Could the pendulum ever swing the other way? Could the future branded media company outsource all the creative, technology, publishing and distribution in a similar way that a laptop manufacturer has its mother board, processor, batteries, memory, drive, screen and advertising come from somewhere outside the company?

“people talk about ‘the future’ being tomorrow, ‘the future’ is now.”

nam june paik on the fluxtour of soho, 1975The artist Nam June Paik passed away on Sunday. Paik’s justifiably known as the first video artist, but thinking of him as “the guy who did things with TVs” does him the disservice of neglecting how visionary his thought was – and that goes beyond his coining of the term “electronic superhighway” (in a 1978 report for the Ford Foundation) to describe the increasingly ubiquitous network that surrounds us. Consider as well his vision of Utopian Laser Television, a manifesto from 1962 that argued for

a new communications medium based on hundreds of television channels. Each channel would narrowcast its own program to an audience of those who wanted the program without regard to the size of the audience. It wouldn’t make a difference whether the audience was made of two viewers or two billion. It wouldn’t even matter whether the programs were intelligent or ridiculous, commonly comprehensible or perfectly eccentric. The medium would make it possible for all information to be transmitted and each member of each audience would be free to select or choose his own programming based on a menu of infinitely large possibilities.

(Described by Ken Friedman in “Twelve Fluxus Ideas“.) Paik had some of the particulars wrong – always the bugbear of those who would describe the future – but in essence this is a spot-on description of the Web we know and use every day. The network was the subject of his art, both directly – in his closed-circuit television sculptures, for example – and indirectly, in the thought that informed them. In 1978, he considered the problem of networks of distribution:

Marx gave much thought about the dialectics of the production and the production medium. He had thought rather simply that if workers (producers) OWNED the production’s medium, everything would be fine. He did not give creative room to the DISTRIBUTION system. The problem of the art world in the ’60s and ’70s is that although the artist owns the production’s medium, such as paint or brush, even sometimes a printing press, they are excluded from the highly centralized DISTRIBUTION system of the art world.
     George Maciunas‘ Genius is the early detection of this post-Marxistic situation and he tried to seize not only the production’s medium but also the DISTRIBUTION SYSTEM of the art world.

(from “George Maciunas and Fluxus”, Flash Art, quoted in Owen F. Smith’s “Fluxus Praxis: an exploration of connections, creativity and community”.) As it was for the artists, so it is now for the rest of us: the problems of art are now the problems of the Internet. This could very easily be part of the ongoing argument about “who owns the pipes”.

Paik’s questions haven’t gone away, and they won’t be going away any time soon. I suspect that he knew this would be the case: “People talk about ‘the future’ being tomorrow,” he said in an interview with Artnews in 1995, “ ‘the future’ is now.”

the future of the book(store), circa 1899 and 2005

Leafing through an 1899 issue of the literary magazine The Dial, I came across an article called “The Distribution of Books” which resonated with the present moment at several uncanny junctures, and got me thinking about the evolving relationship between publishers, libraries, bookstores, and Google Book Search — thoughts which themselves evolved after a conversation with a writer from Pages magazine about the future of bookstores.
“The Distribution of Books” focused mainly on changes in the way books were marketed and distributed, warning that bookstores might go out of business if they failed to change their own business practices in response. “Once more the plaint of the bookseller is heard in the land,” lamented the author, “and one would be indeed stony-hearted who could view his condition without concern.”

According to “The Distribution of Books,” what should have been the privileged domain of the bookseller was being eroded at the century’s end by the book sales of “the great dealers in miscellaneous merchandise.” The article was referring to the department stores that sold books at a loss in order to lure in customers: a bit less than a century later, critics would make the same claims about Amazon, that great dealer in miscellaneous merchandise now celebrating its tenth anniversary. “The Distribution of Books” also complains of the direct marketing practices of publishers who attempted to market to readers directly. This past year, similar complaints were made after Random House joined Scholastic and Simon and Schuster this year in establishing a direct-sale online presence.
Of course, 2005 is not 1899, and this is what makes the Dial piece so startling in its familiarity: in 1899, after all, the distinction between publisher and bookseller was much fresher than now. Hybrid merchant/tradesman who printed, marketed and distributed books at the same time had been the norm for a much longer interval than the shop owner who ordered books from a variety of different publishing houses. In this sense, the publisher’s “new” practice of selling books directly was in fact a modification of bookselling practices that predated the specialized bookshop. Ultimately, the Dial piece is less about the demise of the bookseller than about the imagined demise of a relatively recent phenomenon — the specialized book seller with an investment in promoting the culture of books generally rather than the work of a specific author or publisher.
This tension between specialization and generalization also revealed itself in the article’s most indignant passage, in which the author expressed outrage over the idea that libraries might themselves get involved in bookselling. According to the Dial, bookstore owners had been subjected to:
an onslaught so unexpected and so startling it left [them] gasping for breath — [a suggestion] made a few months ago by librarian Dewey, who calmly proposed that the public libraries throughout the country should be book-selling as well as book-circulating agencies… Booksellers have always looked askance at public libraries, not understanding how they create an appetite for reading that is sure in the end to redound to the bookseller’s advantage, but their suspicious fears never anticipated the explosion in their camp of such a bombshell as this.
After delivering the “bombshell,” the author goes on to reassure the reader that Dewey’s suggestion (yes, that would be Melvil Dewey, inventor of the Dewey Decimal System) could never be taken seriously in America: such a venture on the part of the nation’s libraries would represent a socialistic entangling of the spheres of government and industry. Books sold by libraries would be sold without an eye to profit, conjectured the author, and publishing —-and perhaps the notion of the private sector itself — would collapse. “If the state or the municipality were to go into the business of selling books at cost, what should prevent it from doing the like with groceries?”
While the Dial piece made me think about the ways in which the perceived “new” threats to today’s bookstores might not be so new, it also made me consider how Dewey’s proposal might emerge in modified form in the digital era. While present-day libraries haven’t been proposing the sale of books, they certainly are planning to get into the business of marketing and distribution, as the World Digital Library attests. They are also proposing, as Librarian of Congress librarian James Billington has said, a shift toward significant partnerships with for-profit businesses which have (for various reasons) serious economic stakes in sifting through digital materials. And, as Ben noted a few weeks ago, libraries themselves have been using various strategies from online retailers to catalog and present information.
Just as libraries are starting to embrace the private sector, many bookstores are heading in the other direction: driven to the verge of extinction by poor profits, they are reinventing themselves as nonprofits that serve a valuable social and cultural function. Sure, books are still for sale, but the real “value” of a bookstore is now lies not in its merchandise, but in the intellectual or cultural community it fosters: in that respect, some bookstores are thus akin to the subscription libraries of the past.
Is it so impossible to imagine a future in which one walks into a digital distribution center, orders a latte, and uses an Amazon-type search engine to pull up the ebook that can be read at one’s reading station after the requisite number of ads have flashed on the screen? Is this a library? Is this a bookstore? Does it matter? Should it?

off to seoul

Over the next couple of weeks I will be traveling in South Korea, the land that invented moveable type (1234), and which to this day is cooking up the future of the book on a high flame: from massivly multiplayer online games, to Samsung’s Ubiquitous Dream Hall, to the massively multiplayer citizen journalism site OhmyNews. It will take me about 20 hours to get there but I feel I’ll be stepping a few years into the future. I expect… well, I have no idea what to expect. And all this futurama is only the tip of the iceberg. I have a camera and it shouldn’t be too hard to find an internet connection, so expect a few postcards.

“everything bad is good for you” is really bad

just finished the second book discussion at the institute. first was neil postman’s building a bridge to the eighteenth century. second was steve johnson’s everything bad is good for you in which johnson presents a contemporary refutation of postman.
bad is good.jpg johnson’s basic premise seems harmless enough. games and tv drama are getting more layered, more complex. the mental exercise is likely making our brains more nimble, might even be improving our problem-solving skills. OK…
but how can you define good and bad simply in terms of whether one’s brain is better at multi-tasking and problem-solving. i’ll grant that this shift in raw brain power might make us more effective worker bees for our techno-capitalist society, but it doesn’t mean that the substance of our lives or the social fabric is improved.
we don’t need cheerleaders telling us everything is fine — especially when in our gut we’re pretty sure it isn’t. we need to look long and hard at the kind of world we are building with all this technology.
johnson’s book has been widely praised, making it all the more important to hold it up to careful scrutiny. over the next several days we’re going to launch a serious critique of “everything bad is good for you.” please feel encouraged to join in.

the future of the institute

lately i’ve been thinking about how the institute for the future of the book should be experimental in form as well as content – an organization whose work, when appropriate, is carried out in real time in a relatively public forum. one of the key themes of our first year has been the way a network adds value to an enterprise, whether that be a thought experiment, an attempt to create a collective memory, a curated archive of best practices, or a blog that gathers and processes the world around it. i sense we are feeling our way to new methods of organizing work and distributing the results, and i want to figure out ways to make that aspect of our effort more transparent, more available to the world. this probably calls for a reevaluation of (or a re-acquaintance with) our idea of what an institute actually is, or should be.
the university-based institute arose in the age of print. scholars gathering together to make headway in a particular area of inquiry wrote papers, edited journals, held symposia and printed books of the proceedings. if books are what humans have used to move big ideas around, institutes arose to focus attention on particular big ideas and to distribute the result of that attention, mostly via print. now, as the medium shifts from printed page to networked screen, the organization and methods of “institutes” will change as well.
how they will change is what we hope to find out, and in some small way, influence. so over the next year or so we’ll be trying out a variety of different approaches to presenting our work, and new ways of facilitating debate and discussion. hopefully, we’ll draw some of you in along the way.
here’s a first try. we’ve decided (see thinking out loud) to initiate a weekly discussion at the institute where we read a book (or article or….) and then have a no-holds discussion about it — hoping to at least begin to understand some of the first order questions about what we are doing and how it fits into our perspectives on society. mostly we’re hoping to get to a place where we are regularly asking these questions in our work (whether designing software, studying the web, holding a symposium, or encouraging new publishing projects), measuring technological developments against a sense of what kind of society we’d like to live in and how a particular technology might help or hinder our getting there.
the first discussion is focused on neil postman’s “Building a Bridge to the 18th Century.” following is the audio we recorded broken into annotated chapters. we would be interested in getting people’s feedback on both form and content. (jump to the discussion)