“Groundbreaking” app to predict whether a book can be crowdfunded successfully

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Award-winning publishing company Unbound has launched a “groundbreaking” app to predict crowdfunding revenue as well as the length of time required to fund a project.

Unbound, who have carved out a space in the literary market for bringing together traditional publishing and crowdfunding, have already successfully brought over 300 books to market. The company now hopes the new app, developed by their own head of data science and astrophysics, Dr Noelia Jiménez Martínez, will help improve their commissioning decisions and increase profitability.

Having recently launched their own Crowdcube campaign to help expand the publishing house, the new app could play a key role in attracting new investors.

The app uses data from more than 200,000 pledge transactions on its platform, as well as authors’ online engagement, to predict revenues. It is now being used by the company’s commissioning team, with 80% accuracy.

Unbound books

Already featured among Nothing in the Rulebook’s list of fabulous independent and alternative book publishers, Unbound has been making waves ever since it first emerged onto the literary scene.

Based out of a converted warehouse in London, the expert team behind the company have over 300 years of expertise in publishing and connecting people around creative projects.

They’ve got a wonderful catalogue of books they’ve already published (including ones shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize). But of course, the real thrust of Unbound comes from discovering new authors and ideas, and liberating (read: crowdfunding) them.

There are some exceptional projects currently out there – all of which are worthy of support. To give you a flavour of the variety of excellent books on offer, we’ve compiled a short list:

  • The ‘Advanced Rhyming Dictionary‘, from Adam ‘Shuffle T’ Woollard – a revolutionary rhyming dictionary and workbook for multisyllabic rhymes.
  • Keeping On’, by James Kennedy – part memoir, part exposé of the music world’s murky underbelly and part collection of life lessons gained from many years of ‘trying’ but ultimately having to learn to live with defeat.
  • Crow Court‘ by Andy Charman – a novel of short stories set in Wimborne Minster, Dorset, in the 19th century.
  • Blackwatertown‘ by Paul Waters – think LA Confidential meets The Guard set in Northern Ireland against the backdrop of the troubles.
  • Never So Perfect‘ by Sobia Quazi – a domestic noir, psychological thriller set in London amongst an elite set of British Asian society.

There are also books about Brexit, deepwater diving, and illustrated satirical books about dogs (of the philosophical variety).

So, what are you waiting for? Go get funding them, eh!

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The research is clear: we need to put down our phones and pick up our pens (and our books)

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With 66% of us claiming we don’t have time to read because we’re distracted by our phones, why not put them down and find distractions in the world of books?

“What has come over our age is an alienation from Nature unexampled in human history. It has cost us our sense of reality and all but cost us our humanity,” so opined Henry Beston in what is a timeless meditation on the relationship between humanity and technology.

Beston was writing in the late 1940s; but his remarks about our relationship with technology – and the potential pitfalls between our ever-closer relationship with it – are perhaps more pertinent today than ever before, especially as new research is published showing the vast majority of us claim to be distracted by near-constant, often idle, scrolling on our Smartphone devices.

This isn’t to advocate the luddites, but simply to draw attention to a remarkable trend that has been emerging in recent years as the use of mobile technology has proliferated among our society. Indeed, since 2012, when for the first time over half of all US citizens owned a smartphone, there has been a rapid change in not only our technological usage, but even in our characteristics as individuals and as a society. A new generational divide has even been seen to open up, as Jean Twenge points out in their work, iGen, which sees the generation born after millennials as being increasingly dependent upon their smartphones – using them to derive pleasure, to communicate with one another, form and maintain relationships, even while use of these devices is linked to poorer mental health and increased feelings of loneliness and decreased productivity.

Few, perhaps, will be surprised by findings that suggest our reliance on smartphone technology has come at a cost. As Rebecca Solnit notes in this wonderful analysis, “Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it. The eloquence of letters has turned into the nuanced spareness of texts; the intimacy of phone conversations has turned into the missed signals of mobile phone chat.”

Indeed, to build upon this, and to explore why increases in smartphone usage seem to be linked to feelings of loneliness and poor mental health, Soren Kierkegaard – perhaps the world’s first existentialist – explained that “the unhappy man is always absent from himself, never present to himself.” In this, he hints at what lies behind our decisions to constantly reach for the smartphone; for the device that distracts us. It is an unconscious desire to be “absent” from ourselves and from the world: an insidious form of escapism.

The impact of smartphones on creativity

So what does all this mean for aspiring and established creatives out there? Well, apart from ensuring we all do what we can to support ourselves and one another – looking out for signs of depression and doing what we can to protect our mental health and wellbeing (creative types, after all, may be more likely to experience mental health problems).

But it also means making a conscious effort to switch off our phones and minimise the distractions we face from them. Some of this has a simple reason behind it: with 66% of people saying they would read more if they weren’t distracted by their phones, and 31% of people saying they would read more if they weren’t distracted by streaming services like Netflix (source), and since we know that reading more and widely helps to improve our writing and creative abilities, switching off our phones and picking up a book would likely spur the creative juices needed to produce original pieces of work.

Indeed, this in part is just common sense. As the comedy writer Graham Linehan has said, in an interview for the Guardian: “I have to use all these programs that cut off the internet, force me to be bored, because being bored is an essential part of writing, and the internet has made it very hard to be bored.”

In fact, cutting ourselves off completely may be the only way to truly minimise the impact of modern technology. As a study by the University of Texas at Austin published recently in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research found, a smartphone can sap attention even when it’s not being used, even if the phone is on silent — or even when powered off and tucked away in a purse, briefcase or backpack. Putting these distracting devices out of sight does not necessarily put them out of mind, in other words.

But perhaps there’s also something more here. A battle not between ourselves and our urges to distract ourselves from reality (perhaps an understandable impulse given our reality is currently catastrophic climate breakdown amid a geopolitical maelstrom of inaction and the rise of the far right); but rather a battle between society and the Tech billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg who make billions of dollars precisely from our distraction; and in turn a battle between us and the politicians whose interests it’s in to keep us distracted, to keep us disengaged with reality, because they know (and fear) the potential impact a suddenly creatively energised society could have upon the world.

The art of waiting

What this all ultimately comes down to, perhaps, is patience. The patience needed to work with feelings of boredom and frustration, rather than against them. The patience needed between conversations and meetings with friends to appreciate them all the more (and so much more than you can ever appreciate a simple snapchat streak). The patience needed to properly read a book and appreciate it, rather than simply scanning the pages as one might a smartphone webpage or app. As the brilliant novelist Tim Leach has written, “The art of the novelist is the art of waiting. Patience. Stillness. Not the lightning flash of inspiration, but in the waiting for the lightning.”

Perhaps if we are able to put down our phones, the wait for the lightning that changes the system will be shorter than we think.

 

 

 

Caucasians preferred

Caucasians preferred

For historic opportunity

Pillaging natural resources from other countries;

Starting illegal wars in the Middle East;

Inventing concentration camps;

Enslaving millions;

Enforcing apartheid;

Exacerbating famines.

 

Desirable skills and attributes include:

  • The ability to spread deadly diseases among indigenous populations
  • A superiority complex
  • Waterboarding
  • Must be able to manage multiple teams of slaves to reach agreed cotton production targets
  • Knowledge of Windows XP.

 

Anonymous 

#BoycottCynetSystems 

Creatives in profile: interview with Anne Beate Hovind, the curator of the Library of the Future

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In Norway, a thousand trees have been planted in a forest just outside Oslo. In 100 years’ time, they will be used to make the paper for an anthology of books, which will form part of the so-called ‘library of the future’.

Conceived by Scottish artist Katie Paterson, the project has captured the attention of great authors across the world, including Margaret Atwood, who was the first writer to pledge her story to the future collection.

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Planting an entire forest that will one day help make the books of the library of the future takes time. Photo credit: Bjørvika Utvikling by Kristin von Hirsch.

Yet 100-year art projects, by their very nature, take time. When you work with timescales longer than the average human life, the focus of the work shifts: it is no longer about outcomes, or about critical reception from the artistic and literary communities. Rather, it’s about the experience, and the journey, that takes everyone involved in the project along with it.

Of course, there are also certain logistical necessities that go hand in hand with creating a project of this nature. How do you convince authors to write books that will never be read in their lifetimes? How do you ensure the forest you have planted is used to make the books, and not cut down to make way for some new highway or housing development?

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How do you ensure the forest you have planted is used to make the books of the library of the future, and not cut down to make way for some highway or housing development? Photo credit: Bjørvika Utvikling by Vibeke Hermanrud.

To try and iron out some of the answers to these questions, the Nothing in the Rulebook team caught up with the project manager and curator of the project, Anne Beate Hovind.

It’s an honour to bring you this detailed interview…

INTERVIEWER

So tell us about yourself and your involvement with the Future Library project

ANNE BEATE

I’m the commissioner and the producer for the project. It’s a magical sort of idea that really challenges our concept of time, as well as of trust, and I think ultimately has a lot to say about our world, and the way we interact with it as human beings.

What I think is extraordinary about the project is the opportunity to work so closely with the artist, Katie Paterson. In a way, I sometimes have to pinch myself when I talk about how I became involved in the artwork because in a way it’s crazy – because just imagine the pitch that begins ‘I have this proposal: but it’s going to take 100 years’. That’s when you panic. Because you think ‘100 years?! Oh my god”. Then the artist says, ‘and, we’ll also need a forest’. And you know, you immediately ask yourself – where will the forest grow? Because I work in the Oslo harbour development area – where and how do you grow a forest in a harbour? And then, on top of all that, the artist says, ‘one more thing – we need authors, famous writers, who are willing to participate, because it’s their work we’re going to print, a hundred years from now’.

But even though it’s a little crazy it really is extraordinary and I actually think in my role, it’s an interesting one to see how you have the relationship between the artist and the commissioner or producer, because where the artist is creative in that kind of traditional artistic way, I’m creative in making it happen!

INTERVIEWER

The project wouldn’t happen without you!

ANNE BEATE

Well I think it’s an interesting relationship – I was actually talking about this with another friend of mine, a Norwegian artist called A.K. Dolven, and we were discussing what it means to put an artwork into the control of the producers and so on who make art ‘happen’. Because you need both the creative idea and inspiration and also that inter-displinary competence and almost entrepreneurship to make those ideas into a reality.

INTERVIEWER

You’re the curator, in a sense

ANNE BEATE

I wouldn’t call myself a curator because I’m not an artist in the traditional sense – I’m an entrepreneur first, I create start-ups. And I actually spend a lot of my time working in the construction business, which is quite crazy, but I always get into this situation where I get into the exploratory work; the ‘make things happen’ kind of work; so even though I’m in a different field of work professionally, there are elements where I work in the same way – it’s about attitude; methodology; it’s a way of working exploratively. And it’s quite similar to the way artists create art. And this is what I like to share and talk about when I give talks and stuff.

INTERVIEWER

You were in Austin, Texas, recently for the Southwest by Southwest festival. Can you tell us a little more about the talks that you give?

ANNE BEATE

I was invited there as a speaker for their official programme, and actually on the way out I was a little nervous because I’d never been there before and on my plane out the Crown Prince of Norway was on the same plane and there was a band on board and the fanfare was a little overwhelming. But once I got off the plane I realised quite quickly I was actually the only Norwegian speaker in the official programme, where I was set to appear on their ‘live’ show.

I didn’t know what to expect but it was really interesting to be a part of. I shared a few of my thoughts about what leadership is about when it comes to making things happen.

INTERVIEWER

What do you mean by that?

ANNE BEATE

Now, I think what it comes down to is approaching a new project with a kind of explorative attitude – you kind of have to have this tacit knowledge of where to start: what doors to keep open as long as possible, which ones you have to close. In my day job, there’s a lot of risk assessment involved. There’s a totally different risk-mind set involved compared to what I do in my daily life in the construction business; because in order to be innovative – in order to make innovations happen, you have to take risks, you have to be risk taking – and though you might be aware of some of the potential challenges or risks, you have to strike out and lead from the front.

INTERVIEWER

How do you identify what sort of projects you’re going to pursue with that vigour? How do you maintain the energy for it?

ANNE BEATE

I think what it comes down to is more about your attitude. In any job I do I try to make the most I can out of it. So I can do things that other people might find quite boring or not really very ‘arty’ but I don’t mind. I’m very curious. I learn everything about hospitals when I build hospitals. I worked in shipping classification for the shipping bureau and I learned a lot about that and I’ve worked at the main airport in Norway and I learned lots about that and the aviation sector and I do art – and other things – I think, because of that curiosity. If I’m curious about something or something grabs my attention, I want to find out more and I want to see where we – the project and I – can end up.

If you’re not curious about something, how can you have the passion for it, how can you find that energy? You know, that’s what it’s about. You have to know how to run a business or a project; but you also absolutely have to know how to stay with it.

INTERVIEWER

Surely that’s a really important point in this day and age because, in, for instance, London alone, there are so many different free presses or websites and magazines that start up, and they might be around for a year or two years, and then they die off – or they print one anthology and disappear. Because it’s really hard to sustain a project and keep it going, especially in the world we live in where it’s hard to keep funding coming in. And so often there’s a difficulty in building in a sustainable, long-term view to your project. That you can keep building on.

ANNE BEATE

Oh absolutely and you know, I think we might have a similar approach to you at Nothing in the Rulebook, because I like to ‘put bricks on bricks’ – that’s a saying I often use. This whole ethos really resonates with the Future Library project. What we say in Norway is ‘all wood’ – it’s wood all the way through. It’s an expression that basically means something is authentic; it’s true; it’s solid; and it has good correlation between what you say you are and what you do. And building this sort of thing takes time, it takes time and conscious effort. You have to pour yourself into it in a way and make sure your idea doesn’t just stop.

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“‘All wood’ – it’s wood all the way through” – Anne Beat Hovind. Photo credit: Giorgia Polizzi

This whole attitude can be seen in the way we approached the project too, I think. Because we don’t spend anything on communication. And Katie Paterson, who is the incredible artist behind the idea, the two of us work very intimately and very closely together. Even though the Future Library project is quite big and quite well-known in the world; it’s mostly me and her.

INTERVIEWER

So how does that work? How do you do it? Especially when it comes to first launching the project and getting people involved like Margaret Atwood.

ANNE BEATE

How do you do it? How do we do it? We just ask! It’s such a fascinating story – people ask, ‘why don’t you make e-vites when you invite people to the handover ceremonies – but I said, ‘no – I’ll do it personally’. Because I think; that’s what fascinates people. We’re not part of a big organisation. The project does not have a lot of money behind it. It’s small and grounded and goes slow. It’s personal. It’s not like this big stuck up thing. It’s exactly what it says it is.

I think when you are living in this fast living world, with all this start-up thinking it’s like something gets blown up and then just as quickly it’s like PUFF – gone. But the Future Library isn’t like that at all; it’s totally different. And I think this aspect of the project is what people really respond to and connect with, you know, because it has real meaning and authentic content and impact.

INTERVIEWER

It’s this idea of longevity being built within the project from the outset – the entire ethos of it. We live in an age where thoughts around cathedral thinking has disappeared – the idea that we used to build something that would last hundreds of years for future generations, and now, it’s the opposite…

ANNE BEATE

Precisely. And it’s interesting you mention that idea of cathedral thinking because this notion is so important. I was thinking a lot about what Stephen Hawking says about this and I totally say the exact same thing about it.

And you know the day before I was due to give the talk in Austin, Texas, Stephen Hawking died – and I was quite touched by the timing of it because I always mentioned cathedral thinking whenever I talked about the Future Library project and Hawking has been the spokesperson for this idea that we need to invest in ideas for the future, which are made and built for the generations that come after us. And so the night before I gave this talk I totally changed the start of my presentation and I started out with a quote from Hawking about cathedral thinking. And people got really emotional here – and some actually cried. It was very moving.

But this I think is what makes people feel such a connection for the project. Because people are longing for slow, cathedral thinking projects that are grounded; that are not ‘tech tech tech’.

INTERVIEWER

So what influence does technology have on our modern lives and culture, do you think?

ANNE BEATE

Well I think firstly I should say that I love tech. You know. I drive a tesla – I was the one of the first persons in Norway to buy a Tesla. In our household we have two electric cars – we don’t have gas or petrol fuelled cars. We Live in a three-generation house run by solar energy and a thermal well – we have a lot of technology. But for me, technology should only be used to facilitate my life.

INTERVIEWER

Technology is an enabler.

ANNE BEATE

Yes, exactly. It’s about being a human being and keeping hold of that. And I think people are longing for that – to be reminded of what it is to be human, forget about the other tech stuff.

INTERVIEWER

Yet we live in a world where you only have to walk down the street to see almost everyone always on their phone. Living their lives plugged in constantly to the digital world. And it can seem difficult to separate the technology that can do brilliant incredible things that bring us closer together – speeding up communication and living our lives more effectively – while of course avoiding the danger that we get sucked into this world of technology where it’s all we think about – and our social media lives take precedent over our social lives; which are actually the real, authentic parts of our lives that allow us to build real relationships with other people that last years; not seconds.

ANNE BEATE

This is why projects like this are so important for our time. Just a couple of generations back, people were thinking this way all the time. You know, you build something or plant a forest, you don’t do it for your sake – you do it for future generations.

We kind of have this fast food thinking and now we have to prepare something for the next generation. I think more people realise the world is a little lost and we need to get back on track.

INTERVIEWER

We are designed in our society to be constantly stimulated – To constantly go out and get things for ourselves and gratify ourselfs and just go, go, go, all the time. We’re constantly walking through our cities plugged into our headphones, but you can’t get away from the music in waiting rooms or shops and supermarkets. We don’t even have time to sit and be bored anymore, let alone think about building forests.

ANNE BEATE

And this is the world where this Future Library artwork comes in, that’s entirely based on the idea of planting trees – it’s about walking in the forest; doing rituals!

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Photo credit: Bjørvika Utvikling by Kristin von Hirsch

INTERVIEWER

And how important is the relationship between nature and art? Especially in a world where we now have eBooks, rather than physical books. How important is it for us to keep creating these projects that entwine physical ‘real’ nature with art?

ANNE BEATE

It’s interesting you ask this question about the relationship we have with nature and how we connect to it, because it’s actually a very personal topic to me.

I grew up on a farm. I carried the farm name – which is 1000 years old. It was once a Viking farm. And when my father died when he was young, I was supposed to inherit it. And in Norway, this is almost taken for granted as a rite of passage, that you would take on the farm and run it as a farm. And you are in fact obliged to run it as a farm if you take it.

And my father died when I was 22 and I really had a difficult decision to make; about whether I would take it on, and I said ‘no’. So it’s no longer part of the family.

And this is a decision I haven’t regretted. I realised I wasn’t a farmer, and that that was okay. It was maybe a brave decision, but the right one. And oddly enough what the whole experience has taught me – is that life, in a way, is about planting trees. And planting grains – because my other project is about planting farm crops in the middle of Oslo. And when I first heard about these projects and became involved with them, they both confronted me with how disconnected I had been from nature, even though I have such a long family history of living and working on a farm, which is so connected to the natural world.

And so when I think about this, I realise that both of these artworks are about sustainability. They’re both about the importance of protecting our environment; about living in this world and our collective futures, and having to protect what we have for the long term. We really need to reconnect with nature and the world.

So it’s amazing how both these artworks are so rich in the way they communicate a very fundamental message about being human, which is that no matter how much technology we have, we are still the same animals that evolved over millions of years and thousands of years of modern civilisation to live as part of nature – not apart from it. We need to save our world and our planet. So artworks that speak to this fundamental need are really important.

INTERVIEWER

But of course, we live in an era of catastrophic climate breakdown – do you think these artworks have a call to action in encouraging people to take better care of our planet and our environment? Do we need to each start planting more trees?

ANNE BEATE

So even though Margaret Atwood is kind of quite ‘black’ in her writing, she really isn’t when it comes to her outlook. And when I spoke to her she said “this is a hopeful project” – she’s the one who really knows what it means when it comes to environmental activism. She’s there, on the front of it – and she’s been there all the time; but we haven’t necessarily been listening. And it’s partly her environmentalist background that made her say yes to participating in this work – it took her maybe only two minutes to make up her mind, she said.

Of course, we were SO happy, when she said she was willing to get involved. I can still remember where I was when I got the message saying she would do it. I was so happy! Because it was at this moment that I realised ‘this project is actually going to happen’.

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Anne Beate Hovind and Future Library contributor, Margaret Atwood. Photo credit: Bjørvika Utvikling by Kristin von Hirsch

INTERVIEWER

Did you have doubts that the project might not take off before you got Atwood’s backing?

ANNE BEATE

Not necessarily doubts, but I knew it was a challenge, because, as we said earlier, there aren’t many projects or ideas these days that are built around cathedral thinking – we don’t even build monuments or buildings that won’t be finished for 100 years, let alone art. So how do you talk to a board about this? How do you convince them that 100 years is nothing?

But it’s been a fantastic journey so far, and it is fantastic still. I’m so happy and grateful to be a part of this work, and it has changed me – it’s been life changing.

INTERVIEWER

Why do you think this project resonates so much with so many people, including yourself?

ANNE BEATE

Some researchers should do some research on this, you know. When I saw the article had been upvoted so many times to the front page of Reddit, I thought, what is it that makes people upvote it so much? What is it all about?

INTERVIEWER

There’s a core essence, perhaps, that the project has which has the capacity to capture people’s imagination’s in a really quick way.

ANNE BEATE

And it’s so positive: the engagement people have with it is so built on hope and trust and empathy and compassion. I think it’s really basic human things that we need and are in need of.

I don’t have the answer of course; I can only try to imagine. But when I hear people say things about it, or when I have people ask me ‘how can you be sure that someone will take on this project after you are dead’ (so there’s even an aspect of mortality here that is intrinsically involved), well, I say it’s all about trust.

But when you say that – people have a really shocked reaction – they think ‘that’s so crazy’!

INTERVIEWER

So how do you sustain the project for the future? In 70 or 80 years time, how will you make sure it’s still running?

ANNE BEATE

Trust! It’s all about trust. You know we have set up a formal trust and intention agreements with the relevant municipal authorities in regards to the forest and the room at the Oslo Library, so we have kind of rigged up that admin aspect of it. But to run this project is also about energy – its about respect for the artwork and how it’s set up; and it is about loyalty.

There will be things the board and the trustees will have to solve that me and the artist couldn’t forsee. So there will be people who have to take on my job and fulfil it.

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Oslo Public Library, where the books of the library of the future will be kept. Photo credit: Atelier Oslo and Lund Hagem.

The great thing about this artwork now is that I’ve seen there is a whole world protecting it. So if the forest is threatened by anything – the whole world will make sure to guard it and the books.

I have no choice other than believing in the project. And there’s also trust the other way – because the coming generations have to trust us that we do these kinds of thing for them. They have to trust that we will do things that take care of the planet – that we create work of arts for them.

INTERVIEWER

Art is about what brings people together and the connections that this kind of project can form. Do you have any hopes for yourself about how this might turn out? If you could see the ceremony that takes place 100 years from now, what would you like to see?

ANNE BEATE

I’m sure it’s going to be very emotional. I hope some of my great grand-children will be there and for them to maybe think ‘it was crazy for my great grandmother to take on this idea 100 years ago’, and I hope they think about that and what it means. Because it’s about building bridges between now and the future – but to turn it around, it’s also going to be about the present in the future and the past.

Botnik vs Harry Potter

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“I’m Harry Potter!” Harry began yelling. “The dark arts better be worried, oh boy!”

When we last wrote about computer algorithms producing works of creative writing, we were talking slightly off-kilter poetry from the ‘mind’ of a program called OGDEN. Now we’re back on the topic again – only this time we’ve abandoned poetry in favour of Harry Potter; the greatest selling book franchise of all time.

Less an advanced computer algorithm and more a simple predictive text keyboard, Botnik describes itself as “a community of writers, artists and developers collaborating with machines to create strange new things.”

In their latest project, the team behind Botnik fed the machine the entire volume of seven Harry Potter novels, and then asked it to come up with a new chapter for the franchise.

The result really is quite something. Titled, Harry Potter and the Portrait of What Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash, you can read the latest chapter of Potter and co online (which you should do right now).

To give you a flavour of what’s in store, check out the first two pages below:

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What seems so glorious about this endeavour is the feeling that for all its clear absurdity – “They looked at the door, screaming about how closed it was and asking it to be replaced with a small orb. The password was ‘BEEF WOMEN,’ Hermione cried.” – there is still some semblance of Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling to it all.

While we are a little in awe at the surreal genius of some of the lines Botnik has created, there is nothing fancy about these machines. They are not magically complex. They are simple algorithms built by simple tools. They follow predefined rules of grammar and structure to compose what they perceive as logical-sounding snippets.

The passages do reveal, however, interesting patterns within the lexicon of the Harry Potter franchise. The lines that do make sense, or perhaps don’t feel out of place – “Leathery sheets of rain lashed at Harry’s ghost as he walked across the grounds towards the castle.” – come across this way precisely because as readers we are used to seeing this type of descriptive exposition put down in this type of order. The words Botnik sometimes chooses may not always fit the bill – “he immediately began to eat Hermione’s family” – but they are presented (for the most part) in an order and structure that J.K. Rowling utilises most of all. In this way, Botnik holds up a fascinatingly surreal mirror to the writing voice and style of one of the best selling authors in history.

So, it would be thoroughly fascinating to find out what J.K. Rowling herself made of this quasi-A.I project. Does she see herself in some of the passages of Botnik-Potter? Or, perhaps the more intriguing question focuses on the machine in all of this – and so we might better ask Botnik whether it dreams of Electric Harry Potter.

Electric literature – five digital projects that make you think about books in an entirely new way

 

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Digitally mapping literature: the project ‘Mapping Emotions in Victorian London’ takes data from readers and primary texts to create a graphical visualisation of emotions in fictional Victorian London. 

Here’s a new one for you – what if we were to argue that literary scholarship and the general study of literature no longer requires you to actually read any books? Instead, the same results could be achieved by using computers to crunch “big data” and stores of literary information to provide new insights into the way we think about books, literature, and stories.

This obviously flies in the face of the standard understanding of literary study that for centuries has insisted upon the close reading of texts. Yet it is not a unique argument.

We’ve previously considered whether, with the rise of Apps and digital programming influencing the way we publish stories, the future of literature may be electric. And there is now an increasing number of groups and individuals who believe a similar approach could be taken towards academic literary theory. Indeed, they term this “computational criticism” – that is, the analysis of literature in a statistical way using computational models and digital programming.

Why now? Simply, because modern digital technology permits it. Since Google developed an electronic scanner capable of digitising books in 2004, the written words of all literature can be turned into data – and computers can scan and process this information to pick out trends and identify new areas of insight. They can create graphs, tables, and visual representations of this data that is – arguably – more engaging and interesting to consider than a 100,000 word treatise on the relationship between Kafka’s shoes and modern anti-establishment sentiment (please note: this may not in fact be an actual PhD thesis title – but there are some great ones out there, see for yourselves).

Of course, the idea of visually representing literature as data is not new. One of the great masters of the written word, Kurt Vonnegut, proposed mapping the plots of stories, as well as character development arcs, onto graphs. In 1952, the satirist’s work Player Piano predicted a dystopia in which giant computers have taken over the work of the human brain – and in his later lectures on the shapes of stories he opined “there’s no reason why the shapes of stories can’t be fed into computers.”

Needless to say, this topic has drawn some controversy among the literary establishment. Harold Bloom, one of the best-known literary critics and Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale University, has described the idea of digital literary theory as “absurd […] I am interested in reading; that’s all I’m interested in.”

Others are, however, more receptive to these ideas. Jonathan Franzen, for example, says: “The canon is necessarily restrictive. So what you get is generation after generation of scholarship struggling to say anything new. There are only so many ways you can keep saying Proust is great.”

“It can be dismaying to see Kafka or Conrad or Brontë read not for pleasure but as cultural artefacts,” Franzen continues. “To use new technology to look at literature as a whole, which has never really been done before, rather than focusing on complex and singular works, is a good direction for cultural criticism to move in. Paradoxically, it may even liberate the canonical works to be read more in the spirit in which they were written.”

We’ll let you decide for yourselves what you think of this new world of literary study. Below, you’ll find five of our “picks” of digital projects in the humanities. Let us know what you think in the comments section at the end!

 

  1. Mapping Emotions in Victorian London draws on annotations made by readers on passages of Victorian novels, to generate an “emotional map” of London. You can navigate the map online, exploring the emotions of the readers, as well as the underlying fictional passages, to discover the ways in which London was constructed, navigated and represented emotionally in its fiction.
  2. BookLamprecognises how similar one book is to others in the same genre. Simply type into BookLamp’s search bar one of your favourite novels and it will return a data-driven list of 20 more titles that you’ll like.
  3. VisualEyes, developed by the University of Virginia, is a web-based tool that uses data to digitally map, graph and chart important historical events, searching through vast online databases to pinpoint where concepts first appeared and how they spread across the world.
  4. ‘A View of the World Through Wikipedia’is a time-lapse video made by Kalev Leetaru, a researcher at the University of Illinois, charting how writers have expressed generally positive or negative sentiments towards the places they have written about. Leetaru has done similar analyses with books, social media and online news in a project entitled Culturomics 2.0
  5. The Circumstance art collective in Bristol is an interactive online model: a combination of a print book and an urban-walking app that overlays an imaginary world onto the physical.

 

 

 

 

Do poets dream of electric literature?

Google dreamscape

Google’s dreamscapes – the product of an artificial neural network being asked to amplify and pull patterns out of white noise. Photo credit: Michael Tyka/Google

In 2011, one of the longest-running student-run literary journals in the USA – Archive at Duke University – ran its annual call for poetry submissions for its Fall Issue. The editors, shifting through the reams of poetry, stumbled upon a short poem called “For the Bristlecone Snag”. It was environmentally themed. It struck a slightly aggressive tone. It contained a few of those clunky turns of phrase that can so often be found in student poetry, including the less-than-immortal line: “They attacked it with mechanical horns because they love you, love, in fire and wind”. Regardless of these slight failings, the editors of the journal decided to run with it. An unremarkable decision and an unremarkable nine-line stanza at first glance, except for one thing: the poem was written by a computer algorithm, and nobody could tell.

Of course, it remains too soon to predict when the TS Eliot Prize will be won by a robot. However, what it could mean for the future of poetry – and writing in general – is gradually gathering a great deal of attention, and stimulating significant discussion.

It’s important to point out that Bristlecone Snag is not the only example of machines writing poetry. In 2008, a US high-school student, Sarah Harmon, used Java to create a computer program that wrote poetry. Again, she submitted poetry created by this machine to student journals. And again, the submissions were successful.

There is nothing fancy about these machines. They are not magically complex. They are simple algorithms built by simple tools. They follow predefined rules of grammar and structure to compose poetical-sounding snippets. For example, Harmon’s poetry machine – named OGDEN – came up with the refrain: “He was perfectly strange,/His world was shyly hopeless,/Then he tasted his dreams.”

OGDEN poetry via Shutterstock

Image via shutterstock

These more recent examples are nothing new, either. In 1984 one of the first computer bards – Racter – wrote prose largely at random. It produced a book of poetry and surreal dialogues called The Policeman’s Beard is Half Constructed.

But is it surprising that simple coding tools and skills can be used to create poetry that readers find passable? After all, William Carlos Williams wrote that “A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words”. A nice, simple statement of a poetic position. But also one that picks up on the essentially formulaic aspects of writing. If there are reproducible structures and characteristics – as one would find in any industrial machine or piece of new technology – then it stands to reason that computers can do just a good a job at recreating patterns and writing their own poetry as human beings.

Racter shutterstock

Image via Shutterstock

Just as aspiring writers will look to the poems and novels of their favourite authors, and are able to identify similarities of style and structure that they can imitate, it does not seem unreasonable that digital programs are able to identify the same patterns and imitate them. After all, Booker-nominated author Will Self said of creative writing courses that they are a like to working from “a pattern book”. If such formula can be taught, it can just as easily be programmed.

But what next? Can machine-written poetry ever go beyond simple imitation? Can a computer ever be creative in and of itself? Can it ever create lasting poetic expressions that stand the test of time among human readers without having any examples of real, lived experiences to draw on?

And, perhaps a more pertinent question, would we ever want any answers to these above questions to be ‘yes’?

Ever since the Luddite machine-breaking rebellion 200 years ago, advocates of ever-advancing technology have learned to scoff at technofobes. The argument goes that machine efficiency allows resources to go further, so what does it matter if workers are displaced?

Such an attitude has held firm as industries like coal mining, agriculture and banking and finance have seen miners replaced by coal-cutting machines, farm labourers by tractors and combine harvesters, and bank clerks and analysts by computerised ledgers and algorithms. Although of course we all know that this last one has not been without some teething problems.

The digital Shakespeare 

Yet as IT systems and ever-more capable artificial intelligence evolve, is it truly desirable to have so many aspects of humanity computerised and automated? Do we want to read poetry and novels written by machines, as writers huddle together in the last vestiges of hipsterism in some dusty London cereal café pining for the old days, trying to remember what pens, pencils and paper were called? And will we come to exist as those humans depicted in Pixar’s WALL.E – utterly reliant on automation for sustenance and entertainment, and unable to think for ourselves?

Quite what poets like Blake – who envisioned an England of “dark, Satanic Mills” at the face of the country changed with the advent of the industrial revolution – would make of computerised poetry remains unknown. Though it’s probably possible to at least take a rough guess about his feelings.

George Orwell’s 1984 envisioned a world in which we have already reached this point in history. Here, the “proles” are entertained by books produced by machines. Perhaps unfortunately – depending on your point of view – such a future may not be far away.

Professor Philip Parker, of Insead Business School, has created software that has generated 200,000 books, with over 100,000 of these titles available on Amazon. He notes: “A computer works very well with rules and the most obvious way is poetry.”

“We did a blind test between a Shakespearean sonnet and one that the computer had written. A majority of people surveyed preferred ours,” Professor Parker added. “That’s not to say it was better, but it was what people preferred.”

Writer as algorithm

The algorithms at the heart of Professor Parker’s software have also inspired a new suite of writing software that threatens to compete with journalists for the already minimal numbers of jobs going within the news and media industries.

Startup company Narrative Science creates articles without a human doing the writing.

With 30 clients for its articles already, written automatically by a machine collating data and writing “rich narrative content” from it, the death of the journalist has been mentioned in more than one speculative column.

Business news site Forbes is using the service for a number of pieces each weekday.

More questions than answers?

What this illustrates is the extent to which digital technology represents a force of change for writers of all ilk and forms. Some writers will no-doubt realise potential opportunities created by the emergence of new technologies. Think, for instance, of Iain Pears’s new novel, Arcadia – a 600 page hardback that works in close conjunction with an app of the same name. Or else Melville House’s line of “illuminated” novels with QR codes that lead to extra digital content. Or alternatively, Picador’s “The Kills” – a 2013 “digital first” thriller that links to online films from the characters’ points of views.

But perhaps an issue with these examples is that they all utilise technology under the assumption that the human being remains in control. Here, poets, novelists, publishing houses and media groups embrace these tools as enablers, but do not consider where the future is heading. How long before all the news stories we read have been written by machines? How long before we are all reading pre-programmed novels created by robots? How long before studentds are studying the poetry of AI-8976R, or the HAL-9000, instead of Blake and Shakespeare? And what would this mean for our culture?

These questions remain purely hypothetical. Yet as technology develops, we must begin to consider how we can answer them.

 

The app and the paperback: is the future of literature electric?

Electric-Book-500x500

Faber and Touchpress have launched a “groundbreaking” new mode of publishing, which explores the future of digital reading after ebooks.

Novelist Iain Pears has worked with the two media organisations to create a new reading experience which combines the traditional paperback novel with the new digital opportunities of the smartphone or tablet app.

His new work, Arcadia, has been conceived to be read as an app first and book second, with the application written using specially-commissioned software and developed for readers by Touchpress and Gaver, the partners behind multi-award-winning apps such as The Waste Land and Shakespeare’s Sonnets for iPad.

The e-novel gathers up ten characters in three different worlds, and presents them as a skein of coloured, intersecting lines. Short bursts of text propel the characters onward, or across into another storyline: the choice depends upon the reader.

But this is not your standard “choose your adventure” type model of writing – or reading. This interactive fiction enables every single individual reader to experience the story differently. The author controls the story universe, but how readers reave the three tales – pastoral utopia, 1950s Oxford and dystopian future – is deeply dependent on the individual turning the page (or, in this case, putting fingertip to touch screen).

“There are readers who are ‘acrossers’ and others who are ‘up and downers’,” says Henry Volans, director of Faber Press, a division of the app’s publisher, Faber & Faber. “It’s meant to be a rabbit hole that encourages all sorts of reading.”

Where will this rabbit hole end?

The Circumstance art collective in Bristol is set to follow a similar interactive model of app and primary text (or primary app and secondary text, as it may be, depending on your viewpoint), as the group prepare to publish a new version of “These pages fall like ash”: a combination of a print book and an urban-walking app that overlays an imaginary world onto the physical.

Some remain cautious of suggesting anything even more interactive could be produced, however. Lincoln Michel, of the website Electric Literature, says it is hard to imagine a truly digital novel because “we already have digital narratives – they’re called videogames”. Meanwhile, British novelist, Naomi Alderman, points to the intimate nature of reading, echoing the thoughts of many other readers and writers throughout the centuries: “There’s nothing like a novel to take you into the individual consciousness of a writer. But there are things that are choice-based that only video games can do.”

Human beings have always been story tellers. Part of the reason for our species’ success has been our ability to communicate – and in fact has been key to the rise of the digital era we currently live in. What we may be catching the first glimpses of is a new digital environment that begins to break the page. As Tom Abba, a scholar or digital narrative at the University of the West of England says: “We’re trying to nudge the reader into a new kind of relationship with the story.” In other words, the traditional models of reading are changing. The future of literature may be electric.

We’re breaking up: how technology is dampening our creativity

foliosociety_1984_3

Reading the wonderful exchange of letters between Pulitzer Prize winning author, Willa Cather, and her friend and fellow writer, Sarah Jewett, one is struck immediately by how rare such thoughtful examples of communication have now become. Where once it was common to place such great thought and care into penned – or pencilled – correspondence, we now find ourselves changed by our electronic, immediate communications.

Why is it that our personal identities seem to shift when moving between these mediums? And what does it mean for us as individuals, and as a species?

These questions have in part been answered by Rebecca Sonit, one of the most incisive thinkers and exquisite essayists of our time, in her essay “We’re breaking up: Noncommunication in the Silicon Age”. Indeed, Solnit believes this shift and change began at a very specific point in the summer of 1995. She writes:

“On or around June 1995, human character changed. Or rather, it began to undergo a metamorphosis that is still not complete, but is profound — and troubling, not least because it is hardly noted. When I think about, say, 1995, or whenever the last moment was before most of us were on the Internet and had mobile phones, it seems like a hundred years ago. Letters came once a day, predictably, in the hands of the postal carrier. News came in three flavors — radio, television, print — and at appointed hours. Some of us even had a newspaper delivered every morning.”

Newspapers every morning! An unbelievable concept for so many of us living in our digital bubbles.

Some here might logically play the part of Lawrence Robertson – the fictitious CEO of USR, the massive Robotics conglomerate of I-Robot – who asks “Would you ban the internet just to keep the libraries open?” And sceptically suggest that worrying over technological progress has been the past-time of thinkers since time-immemorial. Italo Calvino, after all, bemoaned newspapers themselves as a worrisome distraction from what was really important: and one twelfth century Zen monk railed against books because they were “annoying”.

On the shredding of the fabric of time

Yet at the heart of Solnit’s argument is a discussion of the far more insidious effects of our modern communication technologies on the human psyche. These subtle changes, she argues, are beginning to shred the very fabric of time – or, at least, our perceptions of it – and beginning to blanket our daily lives and dictate the rhythm with which we live:

“Those mail and newspaper deliveries punctuated the day like church bells. You read the paper over breakfast. If there were developments you heard about them on the evening news or in the next day’s paper. You listened to the news when it was broadcast, since there was no other way to hear it. A great many people relied on the same sources of news, so when they discussed current events they did it under the overarching sky of the same general reality. Time passed in fairly large units, or at least not in milliseconds and constant updates. A few hours wasn’t such a long time to go between moments of contact with your work, your people, or your trivia.

[…]

The bygone time had rhythm, and it had room for you to do one thing at a time; it had different parts; mornings included this, and evenings that, and a great many of us had these schedules in common. I would read the paper while listening to the radio, but I wouldn’t check my mail while updating my status while checking the news sites while talking on the phone. Phones were wired to the wall, or if they were cordless, they were still housebound. The sound quality was usually good. On them people had long, deep conversations of a sort almost unknown today, now that phones are used while driving, while shopping, while walking in front of cars against the light and into fountains. The general assumption was that when you were on the phone, that’s all you were.”

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger.

Solnit considers how correspondence changed from the thrilling event of receiving a letter — “the paper and handwriting told you something, as well as the words” — to the task-oriented pragmatism of fielding a demand or relaying one for the recipient to field:

“Letters morphed into emails, and for a long time emails had all the depth and complexity of letters. They were a beautiful new form that spliced together the intimacy of what you might write from the heart with the speed of telegraphs. Then emails deteriorated into something more like text messages… Text messages were bound by the limits of telegrams — the state-of-the-art technology of the 1840s — and were almost as awkward to punch out. Soon phone calls were made mostly on mobile phones, whose sound quality is mediocre and prone to failure altogether (“you’re breaking up” or “we’re breaking up” is the cry of our time) even when one or both speakers aren’t multitasking. Communication began to dwindle into peremptory practical phrases and fragments, while the niceties of spelling, grammar, and punctuation were put aside, along with the more lyrical and profound possibilities. Communication between two people often turned into group chatter: you told all your Facebook friends or Twitter followers how you felt, and followed the popularity of your post or tweet. Your life had ratings.”

But, says the content marketer, the SEO optimiser, the social media specialist, the digital executive, the blogger, the vlogger, the Instagram star, the Twitter hero (incidentally the new cast of the upcoming Breakfast Club sequel) – But, but there are so many benefits of our modern communication technologies! They are democratic! We can create our news ourselves! We self-publish, self-publicise! We spread ideas! Railing against change is as futile as Cnut trying to hold back the sea.

It’s true that there are a great many benefits – or at least, perceived benefits – of our modern communication technologies. Not least of which (of course) is this site itself (not to brag or anything), which without the immense power of the Internet would simply be a group of creative giraffe-aficionados writing long letters to each other that may never be read by more than a dozen souls. But perhaps there are costs to these new technologies that outweigh their benefits. Consider, as Solnit does, the following:

“Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it. The eloquence of letters has turned into the nuanced spareness of texts; the intimacy of phone conversations has turned into the missed signals of mobile phone chat. I think of that lost world, the way we lived before these new networking technologies, as having two poles: solitude and communion. The new chatter puts us somewhere in between, assuaging fears of being alone without risking real connection. It is a shallow between two deeper zones, a safe spot between the dangers of contact with ourselves, with others.”

Digital isolation

A familiar concept in this digital era is the strange isolation that modern communication models create for individuals – distracting them from real life and real-lived conversations and human communication. This is perhaps best depicted in the increasingly familiar sight of a group of people seated together at a restaurant, each staring into their phones instead of conversing with one another.

But what do such scenes mean? Perhaps we are only just realising that human beings are less interesting in person than they are online. Or perhaps it is symptomatic of a restlessness which has seized so many of us – a fear of missing out on news or updates; or else caused by a new era in which we are continually distracted from real life. Solnit suggests it is “an anxiety about keeping up, about not being left out or getting behind.”

Of course, the tragedy here is that, however discomfiting such anxieties are, the sense of missing out is in fact essential to a full life – and indeed a creative life. As psychoanalyst Adam Phillips notes in his book “Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life”:

“Our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about, the lives we were unable to live. But the exemptions we suffer, whether forced or chosen, make us who we are.”

And something as simple as heading outside to sit quietly by ourselves and embracing boredom can in fact enhance the creative’s ability to produce new art, new thought, new ideas and formulate better answers to the questions they contend with as they attempt to write their novels, or paint their masterpieces.

Yet the new mediums of the digital era seek to disable this, and distract us. Our time no longer comes in large, focused blocks, but rather in fragments and shards. As Solnit notes: “We’re shattered. We’re breaking up.”

She continues:

“It’s hard, now, to be with someone else wholly, uninterruptedly, and it’s hard to be truly alone. The fine art of doing nothing in particular, also known as thinking, or musing, or introspection, or simply moments of being, was part of what happened when you walked from here to there, alone, or stared out the train window, or contemplated the road, but the new technologies have flooded those open spaces. Space for free thought is routinely regarded as a void and filled up with sounds and distractions.”

When we are constantly driven to check our social media apps for notifications, and compose the shortest and most succinct emails and social media statuses, which, by design, must be created almost without thought or any real deliberation or consideration – we are distanced from the ability to think hard about something for the length of time necessary to ponder important questions. We can no longer contemplate the essential mysteries of the universe – or express these creatively – when we are too busy trying to write a funny tweet about Donald Trump in 140 characters or reply to Jeremy in HR with an email that treads that fine-line between snappy and rude.

Such a scenario was perceived way back in 1948 by Henry Beston – a rather adroit bridge-builder between humanity and nature – whose bewitching work “Northern Farm” features a timeless meditation on the relationship between humanity and technology:

“What has come over our age is an alienation from Nature unexampled in human history. It has cost us our sense of reality and all but cost us our humanity. With the passing of a relation to Nature worthy both of Nature and the human spirit, with the slow burning down of the poetic sense together with the noble sense of religious reverence to which it is allied, man has almost ceased to be man. Torn from earth and unaware, having neither the inheritance and awareness of man nor the other sureness and integrity of the animal, we have become vagrants in space, desperate for the meaninglessness which has closed about us. True humanity is no inherent and abstract right but an achievement, and only through the fullness of human experience may we be as one with all who have been and all who are yet to be, sharers and brethren and partakers of the mystery of living, reaching to the full of human peace and the full of human joy.”

The context of reality: straight outta context

The loss of our sense of reality, which Beston touches upon, of course can be traced through the many existentialist writings and musings of essayists and commentators, writers and artists throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

In 1980, for instance, George W.S. Trow penned his seminal essay, ‘Within the Context of No-Context’, a terrifyingly prescient doomsday prophecy about the corrosive effects of electronic media.

Of course, what is so worrying for a modern reader of Trow’s essay is just how prescient the essay is. It predates the blogosphere and social media. It’s pre 24 hour News, pre-reality show. Yet Trow still sees cognitive and psychological destruction at the heart of ‘new media’, which Trow suggests exists solely to “establish false contexts and to chronicle the unraveling of existing contexts; finally, to establish the context of no-context and to chronicle it.”

Just as the television Trow derides holds “no history”, so too do modern forms of communication and new digital technologies bring with them nothing constructive, but rather only destructive: the annihilation of cognitive thought and well-argued expression in favour of those curt emails and meaningless social media status updates. In this world, it is reality, as well as our own minds and thoughts, which is fractured, which is lost.

Reclaiming reality

To reclaim reality, and once again piece together our lives and sense of time, which have been fractured by the new digital technology, perhaps the answer is to slow everything down. To contemplate and articulate the value of the real world outside electronic chatter and distraction. To find alternatives. To put the world and our lives back together again.

As Beston writes, this may begin outside:

“Oh, work that is done in freedom out of doors, work that is done with the body’s and soul’s goodwill, work that is an integral part of life and is done with friends — is there anything so good?”

So, if you’re still reading this, close your internet browser and throw your smartphone in the nearest stream. Quit your office job and see if the local farmer has any jobs going. You never know, it might just give you the ideas and freedom you need to finish writing that novel you’ve been working on.