Hacking the Future of Publishing

For someone who has grown up with reading, the idea of “reinventing” the reading experience might seem either like sacrilege or like a waste of time. At the CODEX Hackathon, which ran from June 26–28 in San Francisco, several of us spent the first few minutes of the event rhapsodizing about the physical joys of reading: trailing fingers over unbroken spines, inhaling the rich and varied scents of different papers. To those who read, the book is no trifling matter, and its form is as much a part of its purpose as its content.

And yet, with or without our consent and awareness, the experience of reading is changing under us, and that is part of what this hackathon was meant to address. Newspapers, as has been much noted, have migrated online, but perhaps they were a lagging indicator. The experience of finding and securing information has become a rapid and ideally lossless process. There is something deeply inefficient (and I’m not just talking about time) about finding a book, reading it, taking notes out of it, tracking the notes back to some imaginary writer’s attic, and consulting them as a primary or even secondary sources.

If research has the whiff of necessity about it, how do we address the notion of pleasure? Some 69 per cent of Americans read a print book in 2013, and another 55 percent disagree that libraries have not kept up with new technology. So what are the pleasures of reading in the digital age?

For some people reading is a social experience, and the Internet has enabled a greater breadth of connection. At one point, Goodreads was one of the country’s fastest-growing social networks. During the two days of the CODEX Hackathon, one group decided to create an app that would help people read more, and so their members interviewed the rest of us about the greatest obstacle to our reading.

“What keeps you from reading more books?” asked one of the developers from this group. He’d come over to a corner of the Code for America basement in SF, where my group (there were four of us) were reclining while debating our own ideas. “Is it that reading is a lonely experience?”

The rest of us exchanged looks of astonishment. The idea that anyone could perceive reading as lonely had never occurred to me. Anyone who has “lent a friend a book” understands what it means to exchange a unique intimacy. Here,the action suggests, learn about me by learning what has moved me.

That group eventually went for another idea, but they weren’t entirely wrong: reading isn’t lonely, of course, but it’s precisely that absence of loneliness that might pave the way to other, equally close, connections.

The hackathon attendees being a group of (largely) millennials, one hackathon team evolved the notion of “Kindlr” — a dating app for people who’d rather be reading. A company called BitLit Media has released an app called “Shelfie,” which allows users to take photos of the books on their bookshelf. The app then matches the user with free or low-priced ebook versions of those same print books. There’s something very nifty about Shelfie’s app, and the Kindlr group used Shelfie’s API to allow potential daters to upload pictures of their bookshelves as the ultimate guide to their psyche. While giving his three-minute demo at the end of the hackathon, the presenter (charming, dry) offered a series of questions on which the app would match potential couples: “What is one book you would never read?” Or, more tellingly, “What is the last book you lied about finishing?” (Not mentioned: “Is it wrong to lie about finishing?”)

Of all the hackathon ideas, this one got some of the biggest laughs, and possibly also some of the most appreciative glances. Maybe it’s a bad idea to look to readers as models of fidelity: any true reader knows that choosing a “favorite” book is an exercise for noobs, because one of the greatest pleasures of reading is its near-infinite variety. Even the Kindlr presenter acknowledged the pointlessness of “The One”, saying of a potential profile match who had only 10 books in her digital library, “I’m not going to date a filthy casual.”

In keeping with the theme of unlikely matches, another crowd favorite was “Neural Public Library” — a team that described their concept as “a library of book titles and authors generated by a recursive neural network.” The fictional titles are generated by the network, while the cover images are grabbed from Flickr. Although a “recursive neural network” sounds only slightly more complex than the Dewey Decimal System, NPL’s website (and accompanying Twitter stream!) serve a host of humorous auto-generalia. Today, in the Romance genre, this is what their website gave me:

Speaking of the challenges of finishing, more than one group tried to shorten the physical experience of reading. “Instant Classic” was developed by Media Lab alum Dan Schultz and his team. Their program shortens any text by removing words and sometimes whole sentences. Users can choose the percentage of shortening they require. So, for example, the immortal lines:

“To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind.”

Become the following, when shortened to 50 per cent:

“To Sherlock Holmes, she is always the woman. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler, since all emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind.”

By reducing to 10 per cent, we get:

“To Sherlock Holmes, she is always the woman, not because of any emotion akin to love.”

What a fascinating transition, and not a wholly nightmarish paraphrase. Maybe Holmes, with his penchant for directness, would approve. In his presentation, Schultz acknowledged that this function may not be the best thing for fiction, where the pleasure lies in more than effective movement from Point A to Point B. But then again, doesn’t everyone kind of agree that Dickens and Hugo could have used some forced-shortening? Of course, set the browser’s view preference to 0 per cent and the text disappears altogether. A great piece of performance art, maybe, but anxiety-inducing if permanence is what you crave.

Another fascinating entry in the “read faster” Olympics was “Boustrophedon,” the practice of reading alternating lines of text in opposing directions. Here are the first few lines of “A Room of One’s Own”, rendered in Boustrophedon’s reader:

According to the project’s creator, “The ancient Greeks and Romans did it!” I leave it to you, dear reader, to decide whether this method of reading feels easier.

Mailchimp contributed an API as well as a prize for the best team that used it: Apple watches, or Android equivalents. Several teams, striving for this trophy, experimented with serialized fiction, an art form that had its heyday in the Victorian Era (astonishing as it may now seem to both industries, fiction once sold magazines). And yet, if serial fiction relies upon the interplay of frustration and longing, then certain authors are already experts at tugging the strings. Or, as one of my friends said in response to the MailBook project: “Can we make something like that for George RR Martin?”

There were many more projects, and a full set of these projects resides here (with demos, if you’re so inclined!) My own group began with the goal of creating an “immersive” reader for an e-text, thereby transmitting the sensory experience of literary place. After two days of hacking and hawing, we had a workable demo of Chapter Five of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Hound of the Baskervilles.” As a reader scrolled through, a map in the background switched locations, showed images, and even played sound effects. A snapshot from our final presentation, below:

As with all such endeavors, the joy lay not just in releasing a prototype, but in working alongside a group of like-minded individuals. My teammate Eric Gardner, the Digital Publications Developer at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, introduced me to Jekyll, Sir Trevor and Mapbox Studio, all through the simple mechanism of using them while I happened to be looking over his shoulder. Teammate Ted Benson, who describes himself on his website as an “expatriate of MIT CSAIL”, lent us a hand with the spreadsheet-based website management he’s been developing over at Cloudstitch. My final teammate, Arendse Lund, was a writer-in-residence in Colorado.

These relationships were the point, not the byproduct. Jennifer 8. Lee, who curated the crowd as well as the spectacular food (most of the items I didn’t recognize, and I’m not an inexperienced eater), had the following to say about her motivations: “The most important mission of the CODEX Hackathon was building relationships through face-to-face interaction, since publishing is an industry that relies so much on personal trust and it’s an industry that has to move forward as an ecosystem.” (Lee is CEO of the Plympton literary studio, who count the Twitter Fiction Festival among their projects.)

At the hackathon, the best projects didn’t reinvent the reading experience so much as build scaffolding around it. The experience of reading is never face-to-face, which is both its allure and its challenge. In this, reading may be a great correlate for something like Facebook: it flirts heavily with human connection, but at the end, commitment remains uncertain. A great book-based app, then, has to bring the outside world right up to the gate of the word, and then, without fanfare, abandon it.

The next CODEX Hackathon takes place in Boston/Cambridge from January 8–10, 2016. Save the date.

Anika Gupta is a graduate student in Comparative Media Studies at MIT. This post first appeared on the CMS blog.

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