Of books and unbooks

I’m not sure precisely what’s driving it – maybe it’s the bracing, clarifying, liberatory aspect of a severe economic downtown – but I sense an absolutely titanic percolation of creativity out there in the world just now.

Each day seems to bring word of another genuinely good new idea or way of framing things, something truly worth reckoning with. I’m frankly jealous that so much of this is going on at a moment when – ironically enough, and for the first time in a decade – I’m mired inside the kind of structure that doesn’t lend itself to such investigations, but the optimist in me hopes there may still be one or two ways to contribute to and participate in what is shaping up to be a great fructification.

The unbook is exemplary of the kind of ideas this moment in our lives seems to be turning up. It’s clearly come steam-engine time, in that a bunch of different people (with predictably diverse instincts and agendas) have been converging on this idea for a while now, but I give props to Jay Cross and Dave Gray for naming the idea and therefore giving it immediacy. Sometimes, as I of all people know, tagging something with a gimmicky name is just what needs to happen before the idea at its core can assume concrete form in people’s minds.

To my mind, anyway, the unbook is a container for long-form ideas appropriate to an internetworked age. By building on some admittedly dorky but highly useful tropes of software, mostly having to do with version control, open-endedness and an explicit role for the “user” community, the notion allows such works to usefully harness the dynamic and responsive nature of discourse on the Web, while preserving coherence, authorial voice and intent.

This is precisely what Nurri and I have always had in mind for The City Is Here For You To Use, which is shaping up as something of an unbook avant la lettre. It’s why we’ve always insisted on keeping you in the loop as to the book’s fitful progress, it’s why I take every opportunity to test its ideas here, it’s why I make explicit the fact that your response to those ideas is crucial to their evolution and expression. And it’s why, even though the process is inevitably going to result in a static, physical document as one of its manifestations – and hopefully a very nice one indeed – we’ve committed to offering a free and freely-downloadable Creative Commons-licensed PDF of every numbered version of The City, from zero onward. You buy the book if you want the object. The ideas are free.

The important part is in acknowledging two points which have usually been understood as contradictory, but which are actually nothing of the sort: firstly, that the expression of ideas in written form has something to learn from the practices that have evolved around the collaborative creation of dynamic, digital documents over the half-century-long history of software; and secondly, that certain ideas require elaboration in the reasonably strongly-bounded form we know as a “book,” and cannot meaningfully be shared otherwise. A third point, concomitant to the second, is that despite recent technical advances, screen-based media still cannot, and may not ever fully be able to, deliver the extratextual cues and phenomenological traces that support, inform and extend the meaning of written documents. (Cory, I love you, but I’ve heard you discount these very real pleasures more than once. Don’t you know you can have your cake and eat it too?)

Well. As Dave Gray points out, “An unbook’s community is a very real part of the unbook’s development team.” I wouldn’t necessarily have used the phrase “development team,” for the obvious reasons, but the point stands. Your voice is a part of this book we’re writing, and not the least significant. What do you think?

9 responses to “Of books and unbooks”

  1. Stefan Constantinescu says :

    The book you’re writing is supposed to enlighten us about new ways to interact with the city around us and to present plausible future scenarios.

    If we knew what you knew, why would we read what you have to say?

    Feel free to test some of your hypotheses on us, but to say that our voice shapes your work is a bit of a cop out.

    Stand tall and proud, we listen to you for a reason.

  2. Steve Nordquist says :

    Reading the TOC, it reads as a wish for numerate design-builders who aren’t smurfing totatlitarian rule on their contractors. (e.g. building Battery Park using a single B&W sketch and a baseball bat signed by the mayor.)

    Seriously, where’s the bit about rolling 4GLs and numerical programming while making people fall in love with the plot parameters? We can do that now; create algebras and sex them up in realtime; but it does not imply expectations that citation will be better too (URIs having been deprecated!). We still don’t have bootstrap stuff like that, that I noticed [self-ed: doesn’t use Acrobat Citation Gadgets]…..

    Love the inline comments here to Cory Doctorow though; completely sensical. Fun.

  3. AG says :

    Well, that’s very flattering, Stefan, and don’t think I don’t appreciate it.

    But I’m just a synthesist, really. I like to think I can express complicated ideas in relatively straightforward language, without dumbing them down – but the ideas are only partially my own, at best. They’re a fusion, a product of my engagement with influences both historical and present-day.

    And the people who read this site are very, very much central to that latter category. “Scenius” is a painfully cute word, but it’s pointing at something real in the world. If the ideas in my books have any merit at all, they were generated by a collectivity, and neither you nor I should have any illusion whatsoever about the fact that I’m only a component of that collectivity.

  4. Laurent says :

    I feel the exact same energy for super-creativity these days. I think it’s all that was kept at home by the non-sense a Bush world was. Why bother pushing the envelop in such a stupid system? Now that we are transitioning, all energies are released and we better hope this is what will save us from the current times.

    See my yesterday’s post about this, and change to “avant lA lettre” so it sounds more french ;)

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Notional Slurry - 21 February 2009
  2. The Unbook - 23 February 2009
  3. Paper Bits - 26 February 2009
  4. Diary of a Mad Natural Historian - 28 February 2009
  5. theunbook.com » On the changing roles of authors and readers - 8 May 2011

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