While Bob Stein's address on the future of the book at the Capitol on Thursday night was riveting stuff, its delivery was not without some issues - it never ceases to amaze me how MWF administrators manage to program digital publishing events in venues with no Internet access. While two years ago anyone appearing with Net-dependent stuff should have come armed to the teeth with backup plans (including the ability to use a screen set up in a tent!) it's a tad surprising in 2009 that we still need to spell this kind of thing out to festival organisers.
Is it really that hard to let a presenter on digital issues know that there are digital issues with the venue well in advance? Not only that, but as with Germaine Greer's address in this venue a year ago (not part of MWF), it was apparently not possible to have stage lights dimmed, making it hard for Stein to see his own laptop screen while presenting. I doubt the magnificence of the venue made up to him for that, if indeed he could see the damn place at all (Greer could not, and complained she could not see us several times).
Rant over. In a rather large nutshell, early work with text and video at the Voyager Company showed Stein that 'a book is a medium where the user is in control of their experience', in other words, 'user-driven media'. In the early '80s, a book was also what he described as a 'random access device' - and in that sense, without the availability to the general public of recording and rewinding tools, television was not.
In his work on the Criterion series of films recorded on laser disc for Voyager, Stein watched films and 'read' movies the way he read books, turning back and forward, stopping, repeating bits he needed to see again, developing multimedia features now common on DVD, such as director commentary.
He left Voyager in the mid-90s but was coaxed back into publishing sometime in the 'noughties, eventuating in the development of the annotating tools and projects for which he is best known.
His remarks on the use of CommentPress software to produce Ken Wark's book and online publication Gamer Theory suggested that Wark's work was the first time he had noticed that making comments alongside the work seemed to change the nature of the conversation - he said Wark became 'a professor at a seminar, and led conversation past the boundary of the book'. Teachers who have used CommentPress (blog-like software that allows text to be commented on in paragraph blocks, to one side of the page rather than at the end) have said that it changes the boundaries of the classroom.
The Golden Notebook project, one of the most recent uses of CommentPress, involved seven writers of different ages reading Lessing's novel together and providing their commentary. To Stein's mystification, none of them liked the book very much (it is one of his favourites) but loved the process.
From these experiments he has drawn the conclusion that 'an old-school author's commitment is to engage with a subject matter on behalf of readers, while new-school author makes a commitment to engage with readers in the context of a particular subject.
(Sadly he did not get to Sophie in any detail - I do have the reader software installed on my desktop so I guess I'd better just have a look at it sometime.)
In question time some other eggs were laid: in answer to a question about the future role of the editor, he said that the 'great publishers of the future will be able to build and nurture communities around the work', and that editors will be of tantamount importance in future networked writing, as well as designers.
He said that it had been his custom to say that the worth of content would sink to zero and community would replace it, but that this had frightened everyone too much! so he now says, 'let's redefine content to include the conversation'.
One future direction for fiction would involve authors creating worlds in which readers will direct narrative - this is not a new suggestion, as those working with the Australia Council's Story of the Future program would know.
Someone else asked if the word 'book' was something of a hindrance - to which he said, provocatively, that we will know we have got somewhere when we don't use the word anymore, when we have another word for this experience. 'The locus of social discourse is the printed page,' but this is changing. He said also in response to this question that he thinks we will come to a time when many books will not be finished, and 'the author will become leader of a group of writers'.
In closing answers, he also felt that humans were not threatened by multitasking demands that new technology makes, but that they will simply LEARN to do it: that we are moving away from immersive, deep reading models to new things, and we do not yet know what form they will take. Several times during the night he mentioned that the first novel did not appear until 300 years after the printing press (he made the claim for Richardson's Pamela), and considers that 'completely new forms of collaboration' will take a while to develop.
Australia is to have its own Institute For The Future Of The Book, if:book Australia, in Queensland from 2010. Kate Eltham announced this good news at the digital publishing session in the morning, and you can read more about that here.