The Future of Creativity and the Book in the Face of Probable Doom, Part 3: In the Wake of the Google Book


Eventually we will run out of stuff. It’s simpler to grow paper than it is to grow tin or aluminum, or fresh water, or viable ocean, or MRSA-resistant cells. This kind of despair is boring. There must be something that comes after.

So where are we? On the one hand, we face remarkable possibility: future books and publishing platforms, among many things, could offer an increasingly networked experience among items, as well as an increasingly rich visual and simulative experience. On the other, we face a likely scenario where, at best, resources necessary for production and survival will become increasingly constrained (at worst, well, we shall not belabor the point).

If we do not exterminate one another over food and water or perish from incurable disease, in future decades we may consider all of Google’s services to have been a single book, a single knowledge system. Google is, on the broad view, a creative system, comprised of individual creators whose skills range from programming to poetry. It has a systemic creativity. However, Google is not the only possibility. Other systems could emerge.

The point of considering systemic creativity and display resolution together is to highlight the increasing richness of links between objects and objects, as well as content and persons. There are other ways that content is getting denser and more interconnected (next-generation broadband networks, cheap and small RFID transmitters, augmented reality programming, etc.), but considering social networks and displays together helps us see the balancing act of knowledge systems that deliver systemic and personal, experiential richness.

But what does this have to do with thinking about Google as a book? There is a positive correlation between the elision of individual works as they are networked together with the increased richness of information offered by software services and hardware. Google offers personal experience just as it offers readers millions of books in an anonymous heap. Both the former and the latter enrich a “user experience,” where the user is always assumed to have more to do than read. There are no more readers. There are only users.

And in a world of users instead of readers, software services like search, mapping, communication, social networking, and electronic publishing are all part of a knowledge system. It is both analogous to a book as well as an aggregation of other books. But this also means that software services and apps are a form of creative output that is not just a use of human creativity, but a part of a systemic publication of a broader work.

And so the future of creativity is both very old and very new. Creating individually will never stop, but there is more room for also creating things that are not writing human language at all. Services, apps, and systems have creativity of their own even if it surpasses human design. Publication and creativity in the context of users instead of readers is about creativity that is agnostic to individual people.

But it will fail.

As John Law (2011) reminds us, complex systems do not degrade; they collapse. It is easy to imagine this kind of creative environment over the next 30 years. It is impossible to imagine it over the next 200. The Internet will not seem like an unlimited knowledge frontier if we have to run computing devices on solar power or biodiesel, or if we no longer have the fresh water or rare earth minerals to support their manufacture. What we discover in the short term through this exciting revolution in creative potential and publishing may well be passed on, but the system itself probably will not.

I don’t imagine that this will translate into a return to books as if the Internet had never happened. But it does mean that in addition to individual and systemic creativity, there will arise a need for a kind of translational creativity. How do we invent a new form that can capture what we’ve done as the resources to support it cease to exist? There will be creativity in facilitating a graceful decay. Authorship could be considered a kind of ligature between digital and non-digital, or sustainable and non-sustainable.

Humanity will probably survive. Enlightenment sensibilities of creativity will not. In the ruins of informational and creative riches, there will be new knowledge systems cobbled together from the past, just as all knowledge systems have been. But this present will be defined by what we can salvage from it, not by what it passes on to subsequent generations as part of an overall march toward limitless progress.

The Future of Creativity and Books in the Face of Probable Doom, Part 2: The Resolution Race: None of This Is Sustainable. But That Is Why It Is Interesting



This kind of conversation is possible because we’re not currently thinking about how there are millions of people today who will use more than a gallon of fresh water to dispose of a mere cup of their own urine. Or how it will be impossible to feed the world without honeybees (who are all dying, but you know that already). We are, in so many ways, plummeting at maximum velocity toward impact. The idea of a digital platform for books should seem laughable if you’ve ever seen the burning e-waste trash pits of Lagos, or the island of plastic floating in the Pacific. Do we honestly expect that the age of digital books will last even a quarter of the time of the print book? Surely we will choke on our own garbage before we perfect the art.

But that is what makes this arresting. We are making things possible now at the expense of the future. We are nearly maxed out on credit.

The rapid advancement of display technology really is an incredible thing. You already know very much that “technology grows rapidly,” but it is easy to take for granted what our eyes expect. In 2004, the display on a mobile phone was about the size of a Fig Newton, and graphics looked as if they were constructed from Legos. That is, if they were even in color. In 2014, it is possible to procure a portable full color HD display that fits in pants pockets for less than the cost of a mediocre wool area rug. Screens are now the size of a reporter’s notebook and we can debate the merits of various pixel arrangements and color reproductions on pocket-sized displays rather than that they are in color at all. And displays are only getting bigger! Their resolutions are increasing as well. HD has gained widespread diffusion as a standard for graphics, only to see 4K emerge. Blu-ray barely had any time beating out HD DVD.

This is not to be facile and lament that things are changing too quickly, or that this growth is somehow manufacturing interest where there is no need. We are already doomed, so why not look for the good in things? Instead, let’s take a moment to appreciate the quality and detail of images that are becoming more and more accessible. A 75 dollar phone purchased at the grocery store can outperform a television from the 1990s. High resolution digital images are not everywhere, but they certainly are in more places than ever. This breakneck acceleration in display quality has a deep history that stretches back to the 1960s and 1970s. As shown by the career of pioneers like Sutherland and Fuchs, the history of computer graphics is intertwined with the search for optimal display solutions. What we see today is not different. To say that the world is visual is a cliché, but the impulse to increase resolution and quality of images holds such generative potential when we think about the future of books and knowledge systems.

For instance, very high-resolution images and videos allow for more visual detail in digital platforms. And detail is a transformative feature of image reproduction. For instance, the University of Illinois’ Medici allows users to zoom and inspect the image in a way that simulates the changing perspectives brought on by increasing the number of pixels used to represent an object. To understand this image as a collection of specimens is a standard definition perspective. To see that each specimen is visually distinct and interesting is a high-definition perspective. To appreciate every hair on the legs of each insect as part of an impossibly intricate collection, as a miraculous panoply of specialized components (such as we see when fully zoomed in), we require a format beyond HD.

And so there will be more visual information in knowledge systems. Not explicitly in the sense of increased numbers of charts, videos, and pictures, but in a very non-referential way, that of visual richness. As they increase in resolution, images could simulate more than represent. Or even represent more than they currently represent. In textbooks and fiction alike, there is a difference between demonstrating an example and calling that example into presence. Presented by better and better displays, future knowledge systems could be aggregations of simulations, narratives, and representations in a far more graceful and viable way than print or current mobile tech will allow.

This assumes that displays will always be pocketable or handheld. Perhaps they will not. Perhaps they will be part of our eyes one day. Perhaps we will run out of resources for batteries and there will be far less mobile technology in the next 20 years. Or both.



The Future of Creativity and Books in the Face of Probable Doom, Part 1: Creative Systems



I believe, with at least 75 percent conviction, that we are all doomed. The environment of our planet is badly damaged. Not beyond recovery, but whatever recovery may come will probably take too long to matter. Disease and overpopulation are also threatening, as is a massive global crisis in fresh water supplies. All of this is to say that whatever time period we have defined as a “future” for the future of books to live in will be relatively short. Terrifyingly short, even.

But in the time leading up to a total collapse of civilization as we know it, there have been some fascinating developments in publishing, in writing, and in general knowledge systems that could (if they were not curtailed by a global apocalypse) genuinely transform how we think about expression, knowledge, and identity. It’s a pity they will not happen.

Just for fun, though, let’s think about what could have been.

Let’s think about what it’s still possible to make, and what we might make soon before we cannot any more.

Authorship and the Stream

Social media platforms (I could list them but you know them) have re-centralized how readers can come to knowledge (you also already know this, but there needs to be some establishing part of this conversation. But I won’t waste too much time because we’re already running out of it). Right now, individual written objects like articles and books and blog posts serve as the anchors to which researchers and writers attach their social media streams. It is possible to, by Twitter alone, brush up on world news, discover current research in your field, and find out about new books and poems to read. Streams are fast becoming channels for knowledge types. No, they are not complete, and no, it’s not the same as a library. It is a social knowledge system that circulates a lot of analog-format objects that are, for now, the accepted end products of creative effort. It could also indicate what creative effort could look like in a few years.

The strengths of social media—powerful mechanisms for circulation, accommodation of heterogeneous items, fun and addictive delivery systems—help us think about what social publication might look like, or about a product aggregated by associations rather than an editorial impulse. Books may be replaced by feeds. The connection of resources alongside the creation of resources may be a new dimension to individual creative efforts. At the same time, the ability to draw relationships among items is why it may be possible to have both individual and collective creativity. We could think of creativity as a graphical problem, where new combinations of ideas and people are curtailed by social, physical, and disciplinary limitations. Being a creative agent as a writer or owner of a feed seems to be one path for authors in a time of social media, but assessing and bridging synapses in associations, knowledge, or resources would be the purview of a creative system. Systemic creativity is different from individual creativity. Creative systems optimize contact among human and nonhuman resources, infer or suggest new linkages, and show us the topography of our own intellectual production. One person may have written an experimental narrative about growing up in New England when there were still elm trees. Another may be studying invasive insect species. There is creative potential between them, whether or not they decide to or are allowed to pursue it. Creative potential, one of the objects of creative systems, exists as a structural feature of a social network. Examining co-authorship networks or citation networks in academic publications only scratches the surface of this domain. Individual creativity is an artifact of books. What happens after books will force us to explore further the nuances of creative systems, and by extension the concept of a system-author.

Or it would if we had enough drinking water to sustain a democracy and academic freedom in the year 2050.