Don’t Mind Digital: talking at #digiconf14

This morning I spoke at the Publishing for Digital Minds conference which precedes the London Book Fair. These are my speaking notes.

Don’t Mind Digital


I want to start by pointing out something that we all know but too often choose to deny:

Words in a particular order are very powerful.

They remain the primary machine we have for moving ideas around.

The things we do with them are astonishing.

We have constructed industries, ideologies, religions, careers and scientific theories on the back of them.

Once, the words were simply spoken, but their power was enormously enhanced when we found ways to capture them.

Writing is the most significant invention since fire, and the transformative power of the alphabet cannot be underestimated.

Writing matters so much that we deliberately reshape the brain function of every child in order to make them literate, because unlike language, reading and writing are not hard-coded into the neural organisation of our species.

Words matter.


So far, so good.


But not every collection of WORDS IN ORDER is the same sort of thing.

We already know this, because we acknowledge the massive differences between oral and literary cultures that I’ve just aluded to.

Despite the tropes of every horror movie, the incantations that matter these days are not the ones that are spoken out loud (even by a foolish teenager in a cabin in the woods).

But there is another, equally significant, distinction.

It is the one between words in order that have been printed and bound in a BOOK and words in order that have been captured in a FILE.

And it is that distinction that I want to explore today.

I want to argue that words in order that have been printed and bound in a book do something different from words in order that have been captured in a file, that they are distinct classes of ‘literary object’ and that we should not treat them as identical or even very much alike.

Sadly, most of the publishing industry seems dedicated to ignoring the distinction, and it could be the ruin of you all.

It is my contention that books, ebooks, apps, enhanced ebooks (and every other neologism) define ontologically distinct entities with different characteristics and different affordances, even if all fall into the class of ‘objects that involve words in a particular order’

And before you ask, the affordance of ‘making money for someone’ is not an essential quality.

It is neither necessary nor sufficient to make something a ‘literary object’, though it may be an emergent property of some forms of use of some.

If I’m right, then a model of the universe that sees the BOOK as an object capable of being translated into a FILE is bound to fail because it does not respect the essential difference between the two.

The Quinean notion of the indeterminacy of translation isn’t the right analogy here – it’s more that the book and the file are participants in different language games.


Why do I say this?

Because the real distinction is not between inkdot and pixel

Or the page and the screen

Or between digital and analogue

Or between printed and posted

It is between passive and active.


A book sits there.

It will contain the same words every time you open it.

A book is outside the stream.

Like a neutrino, it rarely interacts with the world or interferes with the thoughts of even a single reader.

This is its merit and its damnation.

A book is the only thing that is the thing it is, even if the words it contains are perfectly reproduced a million times.

It is printed, dead, done with. Furniture.

It is also – therefore – an object that can be weighed, sold, shelved and treasured.

It has a history.

A book doesn’t change or adapt – except of course in the mind of the reader. It happens in the space inside your head.

Of course, everything else does too, and yes, it is the case that you can’t step into the same narrative twice, but the book that acts as your gateway still carries the scrawled signature from your teenage days.

I’ve been re-reading Iris Murdoch. She says different things to me at 50 than she did at 30.


An ebook is not a book. It’s not any part of a book either.

 I’ll accept that my fully-loaded Kindle does in fact weigh more than my newly acquired empty one – Shannon and Einstein tell us that information has mass – but not so that you’d ever notice.

An ebook is an active part of the digital ecosystem, an object like any other online.

Look at the way Kindle Updates tries to update your books to new editions without bothering you with any tedious confirmation. The current reality can be seamlessly inserted into your timestream, and before you know it

Crimea has always been part of Russia, just like Oceania has always been at war with.. whoever it was… Eurasia, I think. Pass me my chocolate ration.


An ebook is a file, and a file is a file is a file.  Is a file.

A file is a bucket of bits in the right order, to be interpreted as words or images or code or… well, whatever you want.

It can be copied, transformed, reformed, shared.

It is a part of the emergent digital space and partakes of it all.

And because at heart it’s just a file:

an ebook is never finished.

an ebook is never cleanly separated from the rest of the flow of bits

an ebook is active, part of a wider ecosystem.

There’s a reason you can’t have a second-hand ebook, song or programme – because all the bits are the same.

The process of ‘reading’ an ebook is the process of copying its bits from storage, interpreting them, and displaying them, and every time you create a perfect digital simulacrum of something that has no original.

As I type these words Word is making a copy in its cache. Because I’m connected to the Internet Dropbox is syncing it and a version will have appeared on my home desktop before I arrive in Cambridge. Where’s the original now?

When we move our words into a file, different possibilities are expressed.

Sometimes we try to resist them.

The Kindle, Kobo and iPad are killing jars for words, denying their electronic existence to offer readers the simulacrum of a page, piercing their wings with needle to hold them in place on the e-ink screen, and give the companies behind them complete control of the ecosystem.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. And it won’t – with help from you, the writers, publishers and readers.


It is about time we engaged with the technology. After all, this is not a new world. We have had

seventy years of digital computers

forty years of ebooks

thirty years of the internet

twenty-five years of the web

ten years of facebook

seven years of iPhone (and four years of iPad)

So why are we so slow to adapt?

Where can we look for help?

Not to newspapers: the business model is completely broken.

Not to music: they still don’t truly believe in the world of bits

Not to cinema, where they are making too much money to be truly concerned about the future – and where the spectacle will always be profitable for some.

Perhaps publishing is different.

Perhaps the thing you do is not the thing you think you have been doing.

Publishers have bridging cultural capital.

Publishers create affordances.

Publishers exploit the power of reading.

And those things are not about books but about ideas expressed as WORDS IN ORDER.


Ask yourself:

What are the affordances of the screen-based text

How do we secure and maintain attention

Can context and content work together?

And how can the printed book and the file coexist and support each other?


Can we understand the separation between the novel and the ebook in the ways we accept the distinct spaces occupied by Grand Theft Auto and Angry Birds?

They do not occupy the same space.

They are not words in the same language game.


Newtonian mechanics could not explain the Michelson-Morley experiment and account for the measured invariance of the speed of light in a vacuum.

Einstein considered what would have to be true if the measurements were correct and his theory of relativity is derived from that one postulate.

It was a brave thing to hold true.

We need to find a new paradigm – and for once I really mean it.


Perhaps we can ask ‘what is it that we can hold to be true?,, and then explore the model of publishing that emerges,


One way of approaching an answer might be to shift our model of the universe, and consider Copernicus.

Publishers, agents and authors still act as if printed books are the centre of the universe, and all other forms of publishing revolve around the printed, bound text.

This Ptolemaic model works, up to a point.

But it makes it hard to understand or explain the movement of the planets – of Twitter, Facebook, Kindle, iBooks or even YouTube

These newly-observed stars wander through the cosmos, occasionally going off in unexpected directions, and within publishing houses large and small editors, authors and business managers pore over their star charts seeking to account for their movement

Many chickens are slaughtered, but the entrails are silent.

If you assume that the planets can only move in perfect circles then you need to calculate their deferents and add epicycles in order to account for their apparently aberrant behaviour.

A better model puts the sun at one focus of an elliptical orbit for each planet, and the stars an unimaginable distance away.

Can you accept that what you do is no longer the centre of things?

That doesn’t mean the atmosphere you breathe on planet publishing isn’t formed mostly of printed books, or that books aren’t important.

Or even that books can’t have a form of digital expression (though runaway digitisation, like the runaway greenhouse effect, could be dangerous, so watch out for the levels of 1010 emission. They could lead to Global Pixellation…)

It just means that they aren’t the centre of the universe.

What is?

Well, it’s the Internet, stupid. Once you can make perfect copies of any digital object and transfer it to any device without effort, all the things you built a business on stop being opportunities and start being inconveniences.

But if you can stop building epicycles you might just be in with a chance.  As Copernicus might have said – find your focal points, and all falls into place.





PS It’s not the Kindle






I do not care for Twitter

She doesn’t care for me

You can be alone on your Facebook

You can’t be alone when you Tweet

after Stevie Smith



Things fell apart

The centre could not hold

Mere hypertexts were loosed upon the world

Turning and turning in the widening web

What creature born of HTML

Slouches towards Rackspace to be born?

after Yeats