Beyond ebooks: playful interventions in publishing paradigms

Asked to contribute to the recent Digital Book Summit at Olin College, metaLAB struggled to come up with something novel to offer. Held on a brisk fall day at Olin’s Needham campus, hosted by Olin library director Dianna Magnoni, the summit convened librarians, technologists, and publishers to reflect on publishing ventures that offer ebook technologies to academic audiences. Presentations from representatives of O’Reilly and Credo Reference regaled the audience with broad, ambitious narratives of state-of-the-art products and services.

What was left for metaLAB to do? We don’t have a product to demo; our technological work is intimate and propositional; we tend to favor projects that have a higher likelihood of failure than commercial ventures can sustain. Yanni Loukissas and I, the metaLAB participants in the summit, felt at loose ends: we’re hacks and makers, critics and humanists; our favorite class was Physics for Poets. What could we offer such a forum?

Our solution was Yanni’s inspiration: we would invite our fellow conference-goers to do the work. In a workshop we called “Voice, Argument, and Intellectual Property in Multimedia Scholarship,” we divided participants into small teams and got them hacking. Employing the cutting-edge technology of index cards and markers, we randomly assigned each team a set of prompts: we gave them an academic subject (mathematics, literature, architecture, etc.), a platform (ranging from Twitter to multimedia documentary to chatbots), and final products (from anthologies to exhibitions). Over the course of an hour, the groups formulated pitches for a product that would express those prompts with sufficient rigor, charisma, and brio to convince a funder to support it.

Our aim was to get the workshop participants thinking about ebooks that aren’t books: more generally, to provoke them to think playfully about new means of scholarly communication that make use of emergent digital affordances, rather than merely translating the toolkit of the book to electronic media. And in that ambition, the teams richly succeeded: some of the notions cooked up included a virtual world for training aliens in the art of human abduction; a “Ken-Burns-like,” tablet-based documentary of library architecture; and an “Ocular Prosthetic Situational Awareness Device” for “crowd-sourced and event lexicon support for on-site, real-time tactical and/or ethnographic reconnaisance (aka social chit-chat).” (All of the teams documented their notions on a tumblr.) while nobody expects a call from the MacArthur Foundation, it seemed generally productive and inspiring to think adventuresomely about academic publishing possibilities that extend beyond ePub, Kindle, and Google Books.