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New Media

361 days later

//Note – this was written a year ago. I’m posting it now, in the wake of a number of things, and have only updated tenses.

We’ve finished These Pages Fall Like Ash. We can relax, if just for a moment, and consider what works, what we’ve learned and what we do next.

Along the way, I’ve been enthused, inspired and annoyed in almost equal measure. The biggest annoyance has been with media, with the London-centric behaviour of every major media outlet in the country

Vanessa Thorpe managed to achieve in several short paragraphs something that has rarely been attempted in the pages of a national newspaper. For a brief moment on Sunday March 10th, she illuminated a debate between old and new media, modern and post-modern writing, and the lure of digital distribution and interactive media. That she was subsequently taken to task on twitter and in the comments below the line was inevitable (you’d have missed this on twitter, it didn’t count as a tweet storm when writers, adherents of electronic literature and publishers all become excised about the same thing, albeit from a set of hugely differing starting perspectives).

Here are my cards, squarely on the table, I’m an academic who loves the form of the book (and it’s content) and rails against the shorthand parody that eBooks represent, while seeking a form for digital writing that acknowledges the platform it’s being written for – we’ve moved beyond writing film as if it were recorded theatre, for example, but the state of play for digital platforms remains woefully in the doldrums of development. I’m also a writer and a designer in digital spaces, and I’m fortunate enough to work in Bristol. Peter Bazalgette remarked at a talk at Bristol’s Watershed that “around the UK I sit down with artists, industry, academics. I call this the Bristol method because you did it first” and he’s right.

One formal output from that method has been Watershed’s (and subsequently, the Pervasive Media Studio) Sandbox programme for high-intensity development in the arts and creative industries. Pairing academics with creative partners, or theatre producers with technologists creates a tension that, when handled correctly, results in an explosion of creative solutions.

Sandbox is the backbone of the REACT Hub (a £4.5M project to reengineer the relationship between the creative industries and the academy funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council), and it’s worth pointing out that REACT funded eight projects to investigate the relationship between digital and print, between reading in a digital space and on conventional platforms; to explore form and content and embody the argument demonstrated by Thorpe’s piece in the Observer.

Simon Evans of Slingshot (known for their wildly successful 2.8 Hours Later zombie apocalypse experience) worked with Antony Mandal of Cardiff University on a project that combines personal biodata with live games and the text and themes of Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde.

Nicola Thomas of Exeter University and Bow Software set out to break new digital ground in biography, creating a non-linear reading experience led by curiosity and rich interaction with source materials. That they challenged my long-held belief that digital books shouldn’t be skeuomorphic only adds to my enjoyment of their process.

Dave Addey’s Agant and James Attlee (did anyone know that First Great Western had a writer in residence?) addressed travel writing – writing for a journey – that responds to the pace, location and even delays in the train service to serve up story for commuters.

Alex Butterworth of Amblr and Bradley Stevens of Bristol University addressed form of the timeline in digital space – in that big, physical representations of linear experience work well on paper, but the tablet – a platform that has no such attachment to physical media – demands a new approach to representing time, or else our children will spend all their time scrolling sideways to learn Michael Gove’s new history curriculum.

I worked with artists’ collective Circumstance, and Neil Gaiman and Nick Harkaway, on ‘these pages fall like ash‘. By asking writers to address the city as a storytelling space, and employing a reader’s experience as an arbiter of narrative we’re hoping to demonstrate that the physical book very far from an obsolete technology in digital space, but by rethinking the relationship between digital and physical, between reading and the shape of stories, we created something that explores similar territory to that described by Iain Pears in his forthcoming Arcadia. (//update – Arcadia is now scheduled for February 2015)

Far be it for me to suggest that Blake Morrison, Victoria Barnsley and Scott Pack might find some answers to the questions they raised in Bristol and within the REACT Books and Print programme, but it behoves them, and the rest of publishing, to at least take a look.

// update

It’s been a year (These Pages Fall Like Ash launched on April 20th 2013) and everyone involved in the Books and Print programme has moved on to new projects. Most of the projects listed above have gone into further development – Slingshot are developing Jekyll 2.0, Bow are developing their software and platform and we’ve begun work on a Volume of Circumstance – taking the physical/digital interdependency we demonstrated in These Pages to a new set of writers with an anthology edition due by the end of the year. George Walkley summed up the REACT process at the showcase in may last year as having delivered as much in five months as some mainstream publishers have in five years.

One of the things that prompted my digging this out and posting it is an attitude embodied in the Futurebook piece I took issue with earlier today. Sorry Philip, but here goes again:

Speaking at Digital Minds, Faber’s Stephen Page said it was difficult to lock a group of employees in a room (away from the wider business) and ask them to lose money for six months.

We didn’t set out to lose money and, as Nick Harkaway has pointed out:

“Publishers are innovating constantly, but subtly, internally, and on their own terms…and what is needed is a full-on skunkworks from which the conventional trade could produce new possibilities rather than tweak old ones. In any case, we haven’t seen any evidence of a disruptive change coming out of the traditional houses, and I think that’s dangerous in the longer term, both to their well-being as companies and to the trade at large”

We set out to invent a future for the book and digital technology. To show by doing, rapidly and iteratively, rather than by turning up at the same industry event and telling ourselves that we’re not doing nothing. We’ve invented businesses, formats and iterated technologies faster than the mainstream.

And a year on? Innovation isn’t a negative word, blown in with a whiff of dissatisfaction. It’s exhilarating. If you start with the attitude that we’re here to lose you money for six months then that will remain your attitude for ever so. If you want to be part of the solution, start looking around. The links above are your starter for ten.

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