Talking It Out

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As I sit here in a nearly silent room filled with creative thinkers about the future of books, I cannot avoid asking whether we’re doing this all wrong. As a couple of our participants have pointed out, it’s slightly perverse to bring these people together and then ask them to spend much of their time tapping silently at flimsy plastic input devices based on flawed 19th century machines.

Shouldn’t we be talking about this stuff instead?

I’d like to argue, borrowing from Churchill, that this method is the worst form of collaboration except for all the others. The book sprint that we’re running here is inspired by an ambition to reinvent the concept of the book, but perhaps more importantly, the process and performance of publishing. But it is also an effort to reimagine how intellectual conversations can happen. The best conversations are live, spontaneous, and require the high bandwidth of sharing a physical space. You can do it remotely, even by exchanging a series of letters over decades, but to actually create a sense of energy and improvisation—to get people thinking out loud and thinking together—you need live performance.

So the process of our book sprint needs to include live conversation but also something more. A great conversation, by definition, is not transferrable—you were there or you weren’t. Our challenge is to perform a kind of alchemy that distills the energy of collaborative thinking into a new medium. I say alchemy because this involves transmuting a fundamentally magical component out of another. The conversation itself is unique, and even an ESPN-style multipoint camera crew could not capture the live intensity of smart people thinking on their feet—at best, it would an archival recording of something cool that happened once.

The traditional solution to this problem has been to let people figure it out for themselves: have a great conversation, take it home with you, and maybe months or years later it will emerge as some kind of intellectual outcome. In the humanities, the process is even more stylized: almost all intellectual action happens before or after the big conference, when the paper gets written and when it gets revised. All that happens in the conference room is a bunch of people reading things at one another.

Our project here is not only to pose a series of provocative questions about the future of the book, but also to experiment with new processes for curating these conversations. The series of short writing deadlines and structured groups we’ve deployed here offer people a set of friendly challenges: converse, and then articulate your best ideas in a short essay. At its best the blending of these modes sharpens both the talking and the writing through a set of simple constraints. Our series of quick marches ask participants to articulate a few positions that are neither over-determined (because nobody had time to prepare, to do their work beforehand, to pick an answer before the question was fully voiced) nor consequence-free (because it’s not just a conversation, it’s a text that will live on through multiple publishing iterations).

So the exercise is a kind of thinking by doing on multiple levels of process. Everyone in this room is working out their own solution to the structure, the hurdles and pathways we’ve set before them. And collectively we are discussing the process of authorship and publishing itself. The most important part of the exercise is the possibility, really the embrace of failure. This is one of the beautiful things about a good conversation in performance: the inescapable flow of oral utterance, as Barthes (1975) or Ong (1982) argued, does not allow things to be unsaid, only to be reframed. The book sprint is a digital reinvention of that idea (not by forbidding revision, but by persistently nudging people out of their comfort zones).

The process is performance. The room is talking again; it’s filling with laughter and movement as people come out of another cycle to share notes, to talk things out and to keep pushing forward.

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