Category Archives: if:book


It’s been pretty quiet on the blog for the last few weeks. This is partly because there’s a lot of work going on backstage. But it’s also symptomatic of the fact that the research, writing and blogging element of the Institute for the Future of the Book is in the process of serious self-examination.
My first encounter with the Institute for the Future of the Book was via if:book. I posted a comment, received an email from Bob, wrote back, and found myself having tea with him at the Royal Court Theatre in London a week or so later. In my naivete, I hadn’t fully taken on board that it was the output of a think tank, a dedicated group of people whose full-time job it was to think about these things. Because most of the online creative work I was involved in at the time was part-time, voluntary and unpaid, I assumed that if:book worked the same way and asked how I could go about acquiring posting rights.
But the Institute has always been very open-sided. I got my posting rights. Then, shortly after making a first post, I was invited out to NYC to hang out with the team. What had begun as a playful, remote interaction of ideas suddenly took on form and force.
While the Web can often seem more divisive than social – a culture of mouse potatoes unable to interact with other humans save through keyboard and avatar – there are times when it can throw extraordinary, life-changing things your way. The Institute has been one of those for me.
But a lot has changed since I appeared on the scene a year and a half ago, both within the Institute and across the worlds of technology, digital arts and academia in whose cross-fire the Institute found its groove. With Penguin running ARGs, e-readers in the news every second week, and Web2.0 less a buzzword than an enabling condition of contemporary life, thought, debate and activity around discourse and the networked screen has exploded in all directions.
For a blog that explores these things, this poses a challenge. How to keep up with it all? Should it be curated? Should we commission content, generate content, or simply aggregate it and moderate discussion around this? And central to this are still deeper questions. What is such a space for? Who reads if:book? And, more profoundly yet, what will – or should – the Institute be in times to come?
From conversations with Institute members who’ve seen – as I did not – the space evolve from a blank canvas to a phalanx of ideas, an influential position and a series of projects, it’s my understanding that the mood and mode has always been exploratory. One thing might lead to the next, a chance meeting to a new project; a throwaway remark to a runaway success. But it’s not enough to say it’s been an exploration, and that the time for exploration is over.
We’re currently seeing the first shoots of an extraordinary flowering of digital culture. As the Web mainstreams, creators of all kinds – and not just the technologically adept – are finding a voice in the digital space. Let’s say this is no longer the future of the book but its present – a world where print and digital texts interact, interweave, are taggable in Twitter or rendered in digital ink.
One might say that the research, thinking and writing that’s taken place on if:book since late 2004 has helped plow the ground for this. Let’s ask then: when the question is less one of whether books or screens will win, but of (say) best practice in collaborative authorship or the best way to render multimedia authoring programs indexable in search engines, does this world need a think and do tank to lead the way? And if so, what does it think, and what does it do?
We don’t have answers to these questions. But they’re at the core of my task over the coming weeks, which is to delve into the archives of if:book and, from my Johnny-come-lately position of relative naivete, review the story so far. And, hopefully, gain some sense of where it might go next.
A year and a half on, I’m out in NY hanging out with the team again. Over the course of my stay I’ll be exploring the back catalogs, and talking to people in and around the Institute. When I did my first collaborative writing work, I learned that the best way to filter text down to bare bones for Web reading was to send it to a friend and then ask that friend to tell you what they remembered of it without looking at it again. I want to know which of if:book’s posts stuck in that way: which acted as turning points, which inspired some new event or project, which sparked debate or – as in my case – brought new contributors to the team.
Clearly, also, this cannot be confined to if:book personnel past or present. The blog has had a dedicated readership over the last years, occasional guests, and a wide community of support. We welcome suggestions – whether one-liners or paragraphs long – of ideas or articles that have been particularly memorable, fruitful, inspiring – or the reverse. For me, this exercise will be a chance to educate myself about a significant body of work that’s helped shape the conversation around writing and the Web; and hopefully to begin a conversation, review and summary process that can help take that body of work towards its own future.
Comments on the blog are welcome, as always – or if you’d prefer, send them to smary [at] and I’ll add them as guest posts.