The infinite book

I started writing a very clever (but possibly boring) post for FutureBook last night – about the mechanics of perspective, and how we should use it to view the future of publishing in a new light – but then I got distracted by the hack on The Sun’s website.

I used to work at The Sun – I was the editor of the community section of the website – and I watched the events unfold on Twitter like it was a surreal soap opera As the hack continued, it got me thinking to the future of publishing with regards to hacking, and I decided to discard my original post for something more topical. Hacking is bad – especially when it involves stamping over someone’s privacy and interferes in police investigations – yet in the technology world, hacking can often be seen as good. We’re not talking about statement hacking as seen on The Sun, or Assange-style political attention-seeking hacking, but something a bit more democratic, more open-source … something that builds upon original code to do something good.

We take it for granted that the future is somehow online, and that it’s in a virtual cloud of clever coding and slick technology – but we don’t often talk about how safe the structure of stories are with regards to hacking. We mainly focus on the business side; the effects of hacking with regards to DRM, how hackers can take advantage of customer email addresses collated in the CRM. But we don’t seem to think much about the possibility of what hackers could do to the words of authors themselves.

Imagine that at some point in next couple of years HarperCollins (if they’re still around) decide to publish a memoir of a News International executive’s account of 2011. Even now, while we’re right in the middle of it, we know this will always be a sensitive subject. A murdered girl’s voicemails were deleted, people are asking about the coincidental death of a former NOTW staffer, and there are whispers of corruption within the previous government and the present. And while the story is undoubtedly fascinating, it’s also painful for those involved. It’s probably painful enough – and anti-establishment enough - for hackers to want to take a stand like they did with The Sun last night. Could hackers infiltrate the words of a book and deface them like they did to the News International websites last night?

The future of books is technology-driven – that’s obvious. But can we create a technology that ensures the words of an author aren’t hackable? And do we even want to? Is it possible that the future of books could be live documents – ones that are open to editing, to change, to constant updating?

The idea that a book is never complete – like a Wikipedia entry that’s open to all for amendments – is something that interests me, especially as I submitted a revised manuscript to my editor yesterday and I’m wondering if it was good as it could have been. Like most authors, I’m probably never content with the words I’ve written. I can spend hours fine-tuning a scene only to be dissatisfied with my final copy. A future where I can always play with my words – even after my readers have them in their hands – is something that appeals. But is a live ebook (or something similar which we’ve yet to invent) a bad idea if it falls into the wrong hands? Could we ever trust anyone else not to destroy our words, our art?

We accept the internet is unconditionally democratic, and the rise of self-publishing sees new writers using technology to reach their audience without the traditional gatekeepers of agents and publishers. What if technology takes this idea one step further and novels are no longer set in stone, and are open to democracy? What if a novel will no longer be authored by just one person, but can be edited everyone who reads it? What happens if readers decide they’re no longer comfortable with books being broadcast media only?

The infinite monkey theorem suggests that a monkey hitting keys at random on a keyboard will eventually type the complete works of Shakespeare – and while I’m not a mathematician, the probability of a monkey managing to do this would surely increase if there were hundreds of monkeys working on this at the same time. Using this theorem, democratic authoring could potentially be seen as a good thing – works of genius could be created by hundreds of people all striving for excellence, if they could ever decide what excellence was.

And yet … we pretty much see novels as art form, don’t we? Once they’re done, they’re done – they’re open to interpretation and review, but the original words should never change. We wouldn’t dream of going to a gallery and taking out a felt-tip pen to improve a Picasso, for example, so why should it be different with books? Could it ever be? Should it be?

Technology allows innovation, but within this there will always be space for those who want to take a stand – whether it’s to change things or to personalise – to do so. We’ll never exist in a hacker-free world, so we need to safeguard our web properties against those who want to hack the best we can. Yet when hackers continue to hack, and when hacking becomes mainstream – as seen in the number of people who illegally download ebooks, for example – we need to change the way we think about it. Hacking is bad, but it can also create innovation. And because we know the future of book publishing is about innovation, we need to weigh up the pros and cons of having a locked door or one that’s wide open to our readers.



I believe in this

Great post. It is something that keeps going on in my head for some time now as well. I think it is a possible new form of publishing, but I do think it doesn't work for all sorts of titles. For instance fiction. You can see it as an art form, just like the parallel you made with Picasso. The author thought hard and long on his work and wrote every sentence word by word to make it exactly like he/she wanted it to be. It is a story from A to Z and you as a reader are a viewer that enjoys the ride, for as long as it lasts. 

For non-fiction however, most work (memoires and so not included) is about a specific topic where the author can be seen as the expert on it. But we all know, by now, that the crowd (us) can be an expert as well, even it is only on a really small part of the bigger story. And adding that to the original is something that intrigues me very much. Apart from how you would add those expert opinions, I think it could be very valuable to all of us.

And, by writing this, I think I might be wrong on my distinction between fiction and non-fiction, because with Pottermore it will be possible to add your thoughts and fantasies, together with those of (here she is again) J.K. Rowling, to the original stories. 

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