Future of the Book.

Notes for talk at a TED Project Launch on 31 May 2011

:: Should i add a disclaimer that I am the son of a publisher, academic, reviewer, writer, and editor; that my godparents are literary academics; that my first post-grad degree was in Book Art; that my first internship was at Random House? in other words... I am quite biased...


Talking about the future is nonsense because it is, even at it’s best, informed guesswork.

We can talk about now, interesting, unusual things, happening now, but that rarely seems to interest anyone except the person talking.

We can talk about the past, which is interesting because no one can ever remember it precisely, because nothing actually happens precisely, it is an amalgam of perspectives and sometimes we can’t even get the order right.

Or we can write these things down and call it sci-fi, or chick-lit, or a historical novel.

Books, the world is still full of wonderful books, authors, and panicky publishers.

Oh. By the way. This isn’t about textbooks. They are not what a book is.

What is a book?

Composition #1. Is  a book written in 1961 by Marc Saporta.

It is 150 unnumbered pages where each page is part of the story but is self-contained so that every page can be read in any order. And Saporta presents this in a box as a loose leaf novel.

The narrative is a “concatenation of circumstances” curated by the reader’s decisions. In other words you choose which page to read next.

On the internet this works very easily, it’s just an “i feel lucky” button - but in a physical form it’s actually an incredibly hard thing to do.

Is this a book? In a box is it a book?

On an ipad is it still a book? Or an app?

Tom Phillips’ amazing book The Hummument is a book that is made into a completely different book. I love the physical reproduction of the one-off book, I love the ipad version too, but is it a book? Or just picures of a book? ipad version

Stephen Fry’s autobiography, MyFry, has a fantastic iPad edition developed by Penguin which lets you browse a snippet-based, tag-generated version. Is this a book?  iPad edition YouTube vid

How has digitisation has changed books?

Press Here - Herve Tullet - creates new content based on newly intuitive interfaces. Taking the language of digital interactions and turning them into physical. And it’s completely charming.


But that is an unusual example of tradition subverting technology.

The general trend has been for technology to usurp tradition, namely through the digitisation and distribution of books across the internet. This has mined the core wealth of the physical book object and taken it to the cloud, (like logging in the Amazon basin or asset stripping on Wall Street - we extract the valuable content without considering its environment.)

This leaves us with two products: the content (data), and a redundant physical vessel.

Let’s follow the data first.

What are the benefits of digital? - ebooks/readers/digital content

they are light; of infinite capacity; readable; unlosable; searchable; scaleable; sociable; collaborative; unbound to time or geography - creating multi-media, interactive, co-reading experiences across distances; they are extraordinary...

And that’s where the smart money is:

Kindle || Apple iBooks || Google ebooks

But is that a book?

Before we fully understand a thing conceptually (i.e. in words) it is hard to begin to make it.

Sometimes we only identify the thing by looking at the negative spaces around it.

What isn’t a book?

A book is a collection of content, words, pictures, audio, video. Isn’t it?

Video is still a video. Even if it’s on a page in a book or a magazine, or a textbook. It is atypical content. Video is not foretold, it unfolds live before our eyes, in books it is written, we can see it and hold it all with our eyes. [Viewing Shakespeare]

Audio isn’t a book, even when it is a book. It’s a story, it is the content, but in a completely different form, like water into steam, but it would be interesting to see if you could make that disembodied element into a book itself?

Are pictures a book? Well of course they are. Hence picture books. But when they’re not bound together? Or in a frame? Or projected?

Text that links to other text are links... in fact textual links to other pages on the web are called the internet, and the readers is called a browser. So is the internet a book?

What about ereaders that are on the internet? Or the kindle app on an ipad. Are they books within books?

Sorry. Lost you. So what is a book?

From me a book is an experience.

One that you lose yourself in through reading.

We will call this  ‘immersive’. It is primarily static text-based content that follows some loose rules:

1. It’s generally textual and lives in the reader’s mind’s eye rather than pre-constructed (e.g. video or games) although it may have pictures.

2. it is normally narrative.

3. traditional this is a paginal narrative; or, if not paginal, linear; or, if not linear, multi-dimensional - a self-contained reality, a “world” of the authors imagination. See Tolkein, or Terry Pratchett, or Fantasy Gaming books; or AS Byatt, or Dickens, or any good author, or even a bad one.

4. Lots of people think it should be printed or printable and fit on a shelf. I don’t agree with this.

What happens when lots of authors write a book?

A book is only limited by the output of its author or authors. So in many ways the biggest book is Wikipedia, or, if you can go there - it’s Facebook.

The rise of social narratives mean that we can have huge volumes of content that tell the same short story from multiple viewpoints, with differing degrees of accuracy. Much like sitting around a huge dinner table. It is a multi-dimensional multi-authored anarchic story-telling exercise. And some of it isn’t even true.


Charlie Sheen is an excellent example of this. If you could capture that explosion of narrative in a single form that could be a book.

Instead we have the amazing Tales from Tahrir : which is a physical book composed entirely of

tweets from Eygpt during the uprising there.  

This is a bubbling pot of potential: NYPL is trying to crowd source a book; Neal Stephenson’s Mongoliad crowdsources a community of authorship.

In fact the reemergence of collaborative narrative is really just a hi-tech return to the oral tradition, which was ruthlessly destroyed by those data-aggregating, IP thieves Homer and Herodotus.

Those narratives were once collective, orally transmitted, subject to reinterpretation and contextual embellishment.

Interactive collective storytelling is at once strange and familiar.

What happens when a book is authored but still has no linear boundaries such as length or narrative, when a story can be carried forwards backwards left and right?

Like, um, life.

In many ways this is a vision of modern computer gaming, interactive narratives or simulations, but these again are live narratives, comprehensible only in retrospect and hindered by the walled garden of the code base and omniscient authorship.

ROME ro.me - is a generative computer pop video for Dangermouse’s new album that the user generates and can explore to infinity.

A simpler example of the same model is infinite scrabble.

Renamed wordsquared.com for legal reasons.

I haven’t seen a book do this.


But what about the form of a book?

The form of a book simply needs to meet the needs of the author and the user. As described above a book is a form with non-physical needs, but that we think benefits from physicality.

In other words it can be real, or not, it is still a book. This is bookness.

What does the bookness look like in the post-digital physical world?

Time to talk about the vessel.

What is wonderful about the physical book?

the physical book is an augmentation of bookness with ephemeral but intrinsic data that gives context to the content in a physical way.

Imagine this talk was just the content, digitised. Imagine we’d stripped away everything around it, me, my voice, the cadence, the tempo, the tension, my flapping arms, the room, the heat, the dark, the hums, the snores. It wouldn’t be the same thing at all. So, basically when a book has a physical form it acquires lots of information that we just don’t see or understand when it is just the content.

This information can be mechanical, emotional, historical, sensual, tangible, physical, social.

And it can be examined and recorded as data. Just like the content.

can we put these aspects back into books?

Yes. we. can. and.

Book ART!

At this moment I wanted to write/talk about Book Art at length, but, and probably fortunately, we really don’t have time. The same is true for the following 10 questions all of which I have no answers for at all but which seemed like exactly the sort of questions that one should start with if one we’re interested in designing a book for the future). So.

How do we give books all of the physical values that are lost when we strip out content but allow for all the digital possibilities for content that we have when online??

What about books with real-time data feeds?

What about books that are socially connected?

what about books that take place in the place that you are?

[this looks interesting: http://wanderluststories.com/]

What about books that understand time, that grow old with you?

What about books that are physically responsive (weight/size/emotion)?

What about books that see what you see?

Text2.0 is a video about eye-tracking software that tries changing all the parameters of reading so that the computer (or book!) understands and responds to what you read and how you read as well as just showing content.

What about books that merge physical with digital?

The future of digital is physical. Physical is nice. Wood is nice. Plastic isn’t. Paper is real, we are real. Real organic surfaces and unamplified sounds, and unprojected, reflected light are nearer to our natural state than small hand-held computers. This is one reason why the kindle does so well. Reflected light. Ambient displays. Watch Amazon for the next ipad; and in the meantime google Mirasol” 

Physical life without digital is fine. Digital without physical is a problem.

[This is a lovely video that says this much more elegantly than I could. Tableau]

What about beauty?

What is the most immersive book you’ve ever read?

For me this is a toss up between a graphic novel and a children’s book :: Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan versus Phillip Pullman’s Dark Materials. I used to sit at the breakfast table before work reading Jimmy Corrigan and when I closed it I had to remind myself that it was only a book; meanwhile I once punched my best friend for making me stop reading The Subtle Knife - this was especially poor form as all he was doing was making sure I didn’t miss my tube stop.

What about book-love? Private displays of affection.

The emotional value we attach to books often appears in our love of display.

There is a writer I know called Geoff Dyer. His library is a small square of floor to ceiling books and a beaten leather armchair and it  feels like it should be painted by Francis Bacon - it is an incredibly evocative space.

I have a bad habit of judging people on the contents of their bookshelves. Or just if they have bookshelves. It’s snobbish I know, but it’s fun. I compose dinner party placements based on reading peccadilloes. This element of display is significant.

When you can curate by data, how would you display your books?

At periods in my life I have organised, and reorganised my books, by height, colour, author, title width, genre, to show off my literary credentials and based purely on aesthetics. If we could add all those forms of meta-data that we discussed earlier - everything from popularity to age to emotional response - how would we shape our shelves. Would we be able to click our fingers, Mary Poppins style. If books and their physical forms are mutable? What does that look like?

What would a book with a memory of it's readers look like?

We mark our books. And they mark us invisibly, they write notes in our margins, they fold back corners of our psyche - we will never escape the cumulative effect of our reading. And those who never read will never understand quite how magical that immersive realm of the mind is.

What will a book be?

There is a tension at the heart of all good things. And the digitisation of books changes that tension, it creates new design challenges and new opportunities.

We have lost the form which bound the content and gave it context and meaning.

We have discovered the possibility to make all content accessible to everyone.

We have opened up fantastic opportunities to explore and innovate within writing.

We have subtly shifted the art of reading into the act of interaction.

We have made everything possible, but possibly damaged the integrity of the physical engagement.

There is a next generation of readers that must be given a heightened experience of deep, sensory reading, not a diminished one - blending digital and physical properties.

One of the most magical experiences in the world is to lose yourself in a book.

One of the great dangers is that by focusing on the hyper-linked, searchable, social, distractable benefits of digitisation we forget that one of the simplest pleasures is just not being distracted.

Who is Doug Englebart

So let’s end by talking about Doug Englebart. You can go and look him up later, consider this link an augmentation of this textual experience

Doug Englebart worked at Stanford in the 1960’s and was fascinated by the idea of augmentation; and he faced a design challenge that most people didn’t even realise was a challenge - human/computer interaction. To cut a long story short he invented the mouse, and displays, and hypertext and many other amazing things.

But while they were getting to the mouse they tried chin, nose and even knee powered ‘mice’. Turned out the mouse was 98% accurate in mapping abstract movement (your hand) to a digital screen. You know the only thing that beats that? Touchscreens. You know what's more accurate than that? Physicality.


Innovation is a combination of exploration, observation, and experimentation - and the future of the book is in the hands of those who seek to augment the physical with the magic of digital.

Here is the first mouse they made. For me, the truly beautiful thing about it is that it is made of a 1950’s desktop and it looks like it has been dropped, chiselled, and even used as a doorstop. It has a sensual physicality and unique personality. I would like my book of the future, with it’s infinity of content, to have that appeal.

Thank you.