Friday essay: a real life experiment illuminates the future of books and reading


Andy Simionato, RMIT University and Karen ann Donnachie, RMIT University

Books are always transforming. The book we hold today has arrived through a number of materials (clay, papyrus, parchment, paper, pixels) and forms (tablet, scroll, codex, kindle).

The book can be a tool for communication, reading, entertainment, or learning; an object and a status symbol.

The most recent shift, from print media to digital technology, began around the middle of the 20th century. It culminated in two of the most ambitious projects in the history of the book (at least if we believe the corporate hype): the mass-digitisation of books by Google and the mass-distribution of electronic books by Amazon.

The survival of bookshops and flourishing of libraries (in real life) defies predictions that the “end of the book” is near. But even the most militant bibliophile will acknowledge how digital technology has called the “idea” of the book into question, once again.

To explore the potential for human-machine collaboration in reading and writing, we built a machine that makes poetry from the pages of any printed book. Ultimately, this project attempts to imagine the future of the book itself.

A machine to read books

Our custom-coded reading-machine reads and interprets real book pages, to create a new “illuminated” book of poetry.

The reading-machine uses Computer Vision and Optical Character Recognition to identify the text on any open book placed under its dual cameras. It then uses Machine Learning and Natural Language Processing technology to “read” the text for meaning, in order to select a short poetic combination of words on the page which it saves by digitally erasing all other words on the page.

Armed with this generated verse, the reading-machine searches the internet for an image – often a doodle or meme, which someone has shared and which has been stored in Google Images – to illustrate the poem.

Once every page in the book has been read, interpreted, and illustrated, the system publishes the results using an online printing service. The resulting volume is then added to a growing archive we call The Library of Nonhuman Books.

From the moment our machine completes its reading until the delivery of the book, our automated-art-system proceeds algorithmically – from interpreting and illuminating the poems, to pagination, cover design and finally adding the endmatter. This is all done without human intervention. The algorithm can generate a seemingly infinite number of readings of any book.

The poetry

The following poems were produced by the reading-machine from popular texts:

deep down men try there

he’s large naked she’s even

while facing anything.

from E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey

how parties popcorn

jukebox bathrooms depressed

shrug, yeah? all.

from Bret Easton Ellis’ The Rules of Attraction

Oh and her bedroom

bathroom brushing sending it

garter too face hell.

from Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s

My algorithm, my muse

So what does all this have to do with the mass-digitisation of books?

Faced with growing resistance from authors and publishers concerned with Google’s management of copyright, the infoglomerate pivoted away from its primary goal of providing a free corpus of books (a kind of modern day Library of Alexandria) and towards a more modest index system used for searching inside the books Google had scanned. Google would now serve only short “snippets” of words highlighted on the original page.

Behind the scenes, Google had identified a different use for the texts. Millions of scanned books could be used in a field called Natural Language Processing. NLP allows computers to communicate with people using everyday language rather than code. The books originally scanned for humans were made available to machines for learning, and later imitating, human language.

Imagine infinite readings of the books we already have.
Unsplash, CC BY

Algorithmic processes like NLP and Machine Learning hold the promise (or threat) of deferring much of our everyday reading to machines. History has shown that once machines know how to do something, we generally leave them to it. The extent to which we do this will depend on how much we value reading.

If we continue to defer our reading (and writing) to machines, we might make literature with our artificially intelligent counterparts. What will poetry become, with an algorithm as our muse?

We already have clues to this: from the almost obligatory use of emojis or Japanese Kaomoji (顔文字) as visual shorthand for the emotional intent of our digital communication, to the layered meanings of internet memes, to the auto-generation of “fake news” stories. These are the image-word hybrids we find in post-literate social media.

To hide a leaf

Take the book, my friend, and read your eyes out, you will never find there what I find.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Spiritual Laws

Emerson’s challenge highlights the subjectivity we bring to reading. When we started working on the reading-machine we focused on discovering patterns of words within larger bodies of texts that have always been there, but have remained “hidden in plain sight”. Every attempt by the reading-machine generated new poems, all of them made from words that remained in their original positions on the pages of books.

The notion of a single book consisting of infinite readings is not new. We originally conceived our reading-machine as a way of making a mythical Book of Sand, described by Jorge Luis Borges in his 1975 parable.

Borges’ story is about the narrator’s encounter with an endless book which continuously recombines its words and images. Many have compared this impossible book to the internet of today. Our reading-machine, with the turn of each page of any physical book, calculates combinations of words on that page which, until that moment, have been seen, but not consciously perceived by the reader.

The title of our early version of the work was To Hide a Leaf. It was generated by chance when a prototype of the reading-machine was presented with a page from a book of Borges’ stories. The complete sentence from which the words were taken is:

Somewhere I recalled reading that the best place to hide a leaf is in a forest.

The latent verse our machine attempts to reveal in books also hides in plain sight, like a leaf in a forest; and the idea is also a play on a page being generally referred to as a “leaf of a book”.

Like the Book of Sand, perhaps all books can be seen as combinatorial machines. We believed we could write an algorithm that could unlock new meanings in existing books, using only the text within that book as the key.

Philosopher Boris Groys described the result of the mass-digitisation of the book as Words Without Grammar, suggesting clouds of disconnected words.

Our reading-machine, and the Library of Nonhuman Books it is generating, is an attempt to imagine the book to come after these clouds of “words without grammar”. We have found the results are sometimes comical, often nonsensical, occasionally infuriating and, every now and then, even poetic.

Now that machines can read, will we defer the task to them?

The reading-machine will be on display at the Melbourne Art Book Fair in March and will collect a Tokyo Type Directors Club Award in April. Nonhuman Books are available via Atomic Activity Books.The Conversation

Andy Simionato, Lecturer, RMIT University and Karen ann Donnachie, Independent artist / Lecturer (adjunct), RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Sci-fi author William Gibson: how ‘future fatigue’ is putting people off the 22nd century



Shutterstock/HQuality

Andre Spicer, City, University of London

The future isn’t what it used to be, at least according to the Canadian science fiction novelist William Gibson. In a interview with the BBC, Gibson said people seemed to be losing interest in the future. “All through the 20th century we constantly saw the 21st century invoked,” he said. “How often do you hear anyone invoke the 22nd century? Even saying it is unfamiliar to us. We’ve come to not have a future”.

Portrait of William Gibson taken on his 60th birthday on March 17, 2008.
GonzoBonzo/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Gibson thinks that during his lifetime the future “has been a cult, if not a religion”. His whole generation was seized by “postalgia”. This is a tendency to dwell on romantic, idealised visions of the future. Rather than imagining the past as an ideal time (as nostalgics do), postalgics think the future will be perfect. For example, a study of young consultants found many suffered from postalgia. They imagined their life would be perfect once they were promoted to partner.

“The Future, capital-F, be it crystalline city on the hill or radioactive post-nuclear wasteland, is gone”, Gibson said in 2012. “Ahead of us, there is merely … more stuff … events”. The upshot is a peculiarly postmodern malaise. Gibson calls it “future fatigue”. This is a condition where we have grown weary of an obsession with romantic and dystopian visions of the future. Instead, our focus is on now.

Gibson’s diagnosis is supported by international attitude surveys. One found that most Americans rarely think about the future and only a few think about the distant future. When they are forced to think about it, they don’t like what they see. Another poll by the Pew Research Centre found that 44% of Americans were pessimistic about what lies ahead.

An imagined city of the future.
Shutterstock/JuanManuelRodriguez

But pessimism about the future isn’t just limited to the US. One international poll of over 400,000 people from 26 countries found that people in developed countries tended to think that the lives of today’s children will be worse than their own. And a 2015 international survey by YouGov found that people in developed countries were particularly pessimistic. For instance, only 4% of people in Britain thought things were improving. This contrasted with 41% of Chinese people who thought things were getting better.

Rational or irrational pessimism?

So why has the world seemingly given up on the future? One explanation might be that deep pessimism is the only rational response to the catastrophic consequences of global warming, declining life expectancy and an increasing number of poorly understood existential risks.

But other research suggests that this widespread pessimism as irrational. People who support this view, point out that on many measures the world is actually improving. And an Ipsos poll found that people who are more informed tend to be less pessimistic about the future.




Read more:
The end of the world: a history of how a silent cosmos led humans to fear the worst


Although there may be some objective reasons to be pessimistic, it is likely that other factors may explain future fatigue. Researchers who have studied forecasting say there are good reasons why we might avoid making predictions about the distant future.

Distant forecasts

For one, forecasting is always a highly uncertain activity. The longer the time frame one is making predictions about and the more complicated the prediction, the more room there is for error. This means that while it might be rational to make a projection about something simple in the near future, it is probably pointless to make projections about something complex in the very distant future.

Economists have known for many years that people tend to discount the future. That means we put a greater value on something which we can get immediately than something we have to wait for. More attention is paid to pressing short-term needs while longer-term investments go unheeded.

Psychologists have also found that futures that are close at hand seem concrete and detailed while those that are further away seem abstract and stylised. Near futures were more likely to be based on personal experience, while the distance future was shaped by ideologies and theories.

When a future seems to be closer and more concrete, people tend to think it is more likely to occur. And studies have shown that near and concrete futures are also more likely to spark us into action. So the preference for concrete, close-at-hand futures mean people tend to put off thinking about more abstract and distant possibilities.

The human aversion to thinking about the future is partially hardwired. But there are also particular social conditions that make us more likely to give up on the future. Sociologists have argued that for people living in fairly stable societies, it is possible to generate stories about what the future might be like. But in moments of profound social dislocation and upheaval, these stories stop making sense and we lose a sense of the future and how to prepare for it.

Plenty Coups portrait by Edward Curtis dated 1908.
Wikipedia

This is what happened in many native American communities during colonialism. This is how Plenty Coups, the leader of the Crow people, described it: “When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.”

But instead of being thrown into a sense of despair by the future, Gibson thinks we should be a little more optimistic. “This new found state of No Future is, in my opinion, a very good thing … It indicates a kind of maturity, an understanding that every future is someone else’s past, every present is someone else’s future”.The Conversation

Andre Spicer, Professor of Organisational Behaviour, Cass Business School, City, University of London

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How public libraries can help prepare us for the future


Public libraries can use their status as community hubs to engage the public in scenario planning for the future.
Mosman Library/Flickr, CC BY

Matthew Finch, University of Southern Queensland

For generations, libraries have helped people explore knowledge, information and culture. The invention of the public library meant more and more people got to use these collections and services.

In the digital age, a public library can connect even the most remote community to networks of knowledge and information. Today’s public libraries work to engage marginalised communities as users; pioneering projects like Townsville’s Murri Book Club explore ways to make the library meaningful to Indigenous people.

Despite all this, there is one area in which public libraries are underused. Libraries can also help us plan for the future.




Read more:
The Murri Book Club and the politics of reading for Indigenous Australians


Long-term planning is always challenging. It’s simply impossible to gather data from events that haven’t happened yet.

Sometimes we may detect trends, but these can fall apart under what some foresight experts call “TUNA conditions”, when we face Turbulence, Uncertainty, Novelty or Ambiguity.

Think of someone trying to predict that experiments with debt on Wall Street would lead to the global financial crisis and the political ripples that have followed. Think of trying, today, to foretell all the long-term consequences of climate change.

Enter scenario planning

That means we’ve had to find new ways to look at the unpredictable future. Big business has used scenario planning since the 1960s, when Pierre Wack pioneered the approach for Shell.

In scenario planning, people come together to imagine future settings that challenge how we currently think. You don’t judge a scenario’s value by whether it’s likely to happen: its value lies in helping us to rethink our assumptions about the future.

Shell’s scenarios became famous in the 1970s when the company successfully anticipated the oil crisis that followed the Yom Kippur War. Shell hadn’t predicted the conflict, but had imagined scenarios where Middle Eastern oil producers worked as a cartel to control global supply. When those countries did start an oil embargo, scenario planning meant Shell had already thought through this possibility ahead of its competitors.

Today, experts thinking about the future acknowledge the need for engagement from the bottom up as well as top down. For example, the European Union’s new proposal for “mission-oriented innovation” aims to get all of us focused on solving society’s problems. In turbulent times, it’s important that at every level of society we strengthen our ability to imagine the future that awaits us – and our own future choices.

What is libraries’ role in this?

This chimes with the finding of research at the University of Southern Queensland, in support of a new vision for public libraries, that public libraries are a grassroots connector of people, ideas and resources:

Public library services are built on relationships, not just transactions; they are entwined with the specific and deeply local context of everyday life in the communities they serve.




Read more:
Technology hasn’t killed public libraries – it’s inspired them to transform and stay relevant


Locally held scenario planning sessions, convened by communities at their public library, would make use of the library’s existing capacity to connect people – but this time with the goal of helping us reimagine the future.

Librarians would work with their local council to identify issues that call for a long-term perspective. Should we invest in “smart” tech for our small country towns? How much should we rely on recycled water or desalination in the big coastal cities?

Librarians would provide background research and host community workshops to develop local scenarios. People would start to have deeper, richer discussions about the future: there’s a reason scenarios have been called “the art of strategic conversation”.

The scenario process depends on bringing together a group of individuals in a trusted space, with enough information to give the scenarios detail and flavour. In a local community, the public library is that place of trust and information.

Much as public librarians use their skills to help with job seeking or support people’s health and well-being, as scenario planners they would apply their talents to a new domain.




Read more:
Friday essay: why libraries can and must change


Conversations that could transform politics

Playful events we have run in collaboration with Ann Arbor Public Library in Michigan, to capture the attention of children as well as adults, have begun to engage local people with the notion of the long-term future. The next step is to develop a more rigorous and substantive conversation.

A playful event at Ann Arbor Public Library to explore an imagined future.

If public libraries were supported to deliver strategic foresight to their communities, politics could transform. The electorate would be better informed, thinking deeper and further ahead about political issues. Councils could take decisions with confidence that the community had been consulted about the long-term consequences.

Scenarios would offer a playbook of potential futures, already imagined and rehearsed. Every Australian could have access to the kind of foresight tools that have been informing the decisions of government and big business for the past half century.

Imagine the conversations we, as a country, would be having about our future if we democratised those tools via the local library.




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Friday essay: the library – humanist ideal, social glue and now, tourism hotspot


The Conversation


Matthew Finch, Adjunct Research Fellow, University of Southern Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Future of journalism: papers must deliver value – to readers not shareholders


Mark Bradley, University of Sheffield

The conflict that exists within the organisations that own Britain’s newspapers, and the strategies that they employ in running their businesses, was recently brought into sharp focus. One of the key regional players, Johnston Press, went from publicly-listed administration to a controversial, private rebirth within 24 hours, prompting a wider debate around the state of the industry.

The company, which owns major regionals such as The Scotsman and the Yorkshire Post as well as the nationally popular i newspaper, announced on November 16 that it was in administration only to reveal the following day it had been bought out by its debtors and would continue to operate as before but under the new name of JPIMedia.

While it undoubtedly leaves the newspaper titles in a healthier financial position for now, whether or not any optimism will be long-lasting, given the state of the UK’s print newspaper market, is a matter of some conjecture.

In September 2018, I made a submission to the Cairncross Review – a government initiative to examine the options for securing a sustainable future for high quality journalism. The events of the past week have led me back to the following extract:

During the past decade of declining revenues, the traditional local news publishers have used a smoke and mirrors approach to mask their editorial cutbacks. News content has become more regionalised and less relevant, patch offices and receptions have been closing, while titles have continued to be branded as local. There are understandable business reasons for this happening, but these public limited companies have always had profits at their core, often prioritising their shareholders over their readers.

This tension remains at the heart of many newspaper companies – and it is also a parallel to the historic and counter-intuitive decision-making that still remains when it comes to print and web content.

If everyone in the industry – regional or national – knew then what they know now about the challenges faced with monetising their websites through a commercial base then I’m sure the landscape would be very different. The assumption that display advertisers, classifieds, property and motors would migrate seamlessly into digital was fatally flawed because the traditional media giants did not anticipate the competition that would spring up. They had no track record of overcoming it by making their own offerings better than the rest.

And while they were struggling to compete online, time and cash should have been reinvested into the printed products which, while on a declining sales trend, still remain profitable and well-read by certain key demographics.

What the events surrounding the Johnston Press have done is to complete a jigsaw whose outline was already well-known – that the eye-watering return on sales figures pocketed during the 1990s and 2000s were part of a recipe for the mess the industry now finds itself in.

Printing money

So what value remains in printing traditional newspapers, as opposed to an online-only approach favoured by titles such as The Independent?

There is plenty of evidence that demonstrates the continuing demise of print. But the value of print is not purely economic in nature, and should not be placed in a silo away from the value it brings to news brands as a whole.

There is a negative correlation between the popularity of a newspaper and the trust the reader has in it. If you were to place the sales and trust rankings of the main ten titles in the UK side-by-side you’d see the order turned on its head. Trust is a valuable commodity that not only gives credibility to the printed product but also pervades into the perception of the online offering of the same brand.

Take the Guardian. With one of the highest trust ratings for a national newspaper – and despite its relatively low print sales – it has been able to leverage that emotional attachment and use it to develop an online contribution scheme that will enable it to break even by April 2019. While the printed product may appear to be in decline, it still acts as a firm foundation for the overall news brand as it seeks to evolve.

Newspapers also remain an integral part of the profits in many media portfolios. Within Johnston Press, the printed offshoot of The Independent, the i newspaper, was the jewel in the crown, bought for £24m in 2016 and now being touted at a value of £60m. At a regional level, concentrating resources and a focus on print remains a core and profitable component of several groups, especially those in private ownership, such as Iliffe Media, which owns a range of local newspapers.

For the many

But the perceived value of the newspaper format should not be limited to the balance sheet – there is value for the reader, too. And sometimes it takes a holistic view to fully appreciate what this consists of. While the web may be ideal for delivering bespoke content that can be accessed via search, the newspaper allows people an opportunity for a deep dive into the news – not only reading the stories they are primarily concerned with, but stumbling across material they would never have known about otherwise.

Stories that educate and inform them about their community, their country, their world. Curated for them by trained professionals, rather than through the vagaries of any unregulated social platform. Providing what society needs rather than what an audience wants.

There is a compelling argument that printed newspapers will cease to exist, or may remain in existence as a niche offering. But freed from the shackles of shareholdings – and with a model that promotes a long-term sustainable future over short-term profits – there is an equally compelling argument that newspapers, and the journalism within them, can continue to be a universally valuable part of the media landscape for some time to come.The Conversation

Mark Bradley, Director of Postgraduate Studies, Journalism Studies, University of Sheffield

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The History and Future of ‘Westerns’


The link below is to an article that looks at the history and future of ‘Westerns’ in 10 books.

For more visit:
https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/tip-sheet/article/77727-the-history-and-future-of-the-western-in-10-books.html

More on Hardbacks/Hardcovers


The link below is another article on hardbacks/hardcovers that is, in fact, a response to the previous article posted.

For more visit:
https://the-digital-reader.com/2018/02/26/publishers-still-issue-hardbacks-given-theyre-not-popular-anymore/

Hardbacks/Hardcovers: Here to Stay?


The link below is to an article that looks at the future of the hardback/hardcover.

For more visit:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/feb/25/book-clinic-why-do-publishers-still-issue-hardbacks

Amazon and Audible on Audiobooks


The link below is to an article that looks at Amazon and Audible on there strategy for audiobooks into the future.

For more visit:
http://observer.com/2018/02/amazon-audible-audiobooks-changes-book-publishing/