Tinkering as an Orientation toward Book Futures

"WorkbenchWallWeb," by Ryan Trauman, license info below.Trouble sleeping lately, so I’ve been taking to reading before I go to bed. A novel. To take my mind out of the scholarship, historical, analytical mindset in which I’ve been immersing myself these dissertating days. Cory Doctorow’s new novel: Makers. (You can download a free copy here.) So far, it’s about what I’ll call “tinkerers”. Maybe I’ll go into tinkerers later, but for now, it’ll suffice to say that it’s about people who like junk, who like to figure out how stuff works, how to take stuff apart and put different pieces of different machines together to make a sort of hybrid machines. Oh, and they’re cool. Like iPods, tight t-shirts, fixies, messenger bags, and Lady Gaga cool. Commodified, definitely. Commercial, optional. Junk. Gadgets. Soldering irons. Circuit boards. Geek chic.

I’m about 50 pages into the novel. The story is dull. Sort of a ghost-of-Ayn-Rand-in-the-machine sort of thing. Compelling ideas, though. Lots of exposition. (An journalist interviewing a pair of tinkerers.) But it’s a blast to read. Really. Here’s a quotation from a marketer who’s decided to go into business with the tinkerers. His response to what he sees in two young geeks making cool gadgets out of junk:

“Those two can build anything. That’s the point: any moderately skilled practitioner can build anything these days, for practically nothing. Back in the old days, the blacksmith just made every bit of ironmongery everyone needed, one piece at a time, at his forge. That’s where we’re at. Every industry that required a factory yesterday only needs a garage today. It’s a real return to fundamentals. What no one ever could do was join up all the smiths and make them into a single logical network with a single set of objectives. That’s new and it’s what I plan on making hay out of. This will be much bigger than dotcom. It will be much harder, too–bigger crests, deeper troughs. This is something to chronicle all right: it will make dotcom look like a warm-up for the main show.” (Doctorow, 44-45).

It’s a fictional character in a fictional world. Not scholarship. Not data. Fine. But it rings true within my own interests. The future(s) of books. Mass media and industry publications on the topic consistently acknowledge that big publishing companies are fossilizing. Looking slower and slower as digital technologies continue to increase processing speeds, storage capacity, and circulation strategies. But “reading” isn’t going away, despite the histrionic screeches of the book eulogists.

So Cory Doctorow has the answer? Nope. But sorta. It’s not junk from which future bibliographic forms will emerge. Junk implies cast-off materials. Tinkering atomizes and repurposes those technologies. Instead of looking at the future of the book as a repurposed “junk” model, I think it might be more useful to think about it in terms of a river eddy. Cindy Selfe might refer to this orientation as an interest not in “cutting-edge” or “bleeding-edge” technologies, but those on the “trailing edge.”

Articulating the future of the book? Tricky. Prediction is useless. Orientation is the key. For several hundred years, the material form of “the book” has been relatively stable. Codex. Pages with numbers. Tables of Contents. Indexes. Footnotes. Etc. And then in the last quarter of the twentieth century, the book’s digital future materialized. (Yep. The pun-odox is intentional). There really was never a question of whether or not the book’s future was digital. It was a matter of when. And what it would look like. And what would become of reading.

For the last five years, companies have been developing some technologies specifically for digital books. The Kindle. e-Ink. Not much else. And yet, we’ve got hundreds of thousands of titles of digital books. What gives? Laptops. iPods. iPads. PDFs. Quality monitors. And more all-purpose computer components like hard drives, processors, etc. None of which were developed with digital books as their primary purpose. And yet these are the technologies which currently make up our digital books. Not cast-off technologies. Not junk circuitry. But secondary purposes. Or unintended purposes. You may not get this impression from trying to read a Faulkner novel on your laptop, but what you’ve got on your lap is a digital book.

That’s a big shift in the way books are developed as a material technology. Used to be that most paper technologies were developed with books as their primary use. Same can be said for certain types of inks, glues, and cover materials. Even cutting machines developed for binderies.

Book-specific technologies, like the corporate publishing industries who’ve developed them, are obsolescing. And if you’re out there thinking about e-readers and e-ink, just ask yourself how many people you know have or want one? You probably know at least someone, but the percentage is low. Too expensive. Extra device. Needs to be incorporated into existing reading, portability, and delivery strategies.

So back to Doctorow’s book. The meek will inherit the Earth. And makers will inherit the future. And makers tinker. A tinkering model for the future of the book? We’ve been stuck within this model for decades. We just need to foreground it. Are there new ways to use screens for reading-specific purposes? Right now, screens are for production, communication, and browsing… not really for extended reading. What can be done? I hate to say this, but the iPad is getting this right. Existing screen technologies. Sans keyboard. Multimodal interactivity. Not much new, but readers can settle-in, get comfy, and they don’t need to get up to check their email, FB, or twitter. Or to share a thought about the book. What that iPad has done–and what I hope to high heaven that other readers do–is to incorporate reading into existing practices. And Apple has found a way to build those distractions into the experience, rather than compete with them.

"CircuitJunkWeb," by Ryan Trauman, see license below.Tinkered books, then. Little techno-hybird monsters Frankenstein WISHED he could have sewn together. We’re getting there. But we’re not there yet. What’s not yet happening is a problem of scale. To borrow another of Doctorow’s ideas, industry in this century will complete the move from factory to garage, from corporation to boutique. Publishing, too, will atomize. From multinational markets and the neolithic publishing attitudes that structure them to long-tail distribution models and small-team production. And it’s these small teams (again, Doctorow on the brain) from which the new bibliographic forms will emerge and dissolve.

Now the fun. Start a team. Get a designers who care about copy. Get writers who care about code. Get programmers who care about building. Get builders who care about design. And make sure they all care about teaching and learning. And sharing with other teams. That’s the orientation I’m talking about.

(Images by Ryan Trauman, Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 license)