The Watershed Manifesto


The arithmetic magicians of old did not know what fire they handled, what heat they hefted, when they considered the humble ’1′ and the mystical ’0′. Certainly, they knew of power there, but none could have guessed what this dynamic digital duo would be up to come the 21st century.  Indeed, heroic ‘one’ and the Enkidu ‘zero’ are a pair on a journey – and we are all along, passenger and crew.

The recent achievements of this binary couplet are many – but one in particular concerns us here.  Binary has (re)turned content into a fluid. By content, I mean the stuff we generate to fill pages and the grey between our ears.  Story telling, information transmission, all outward expression has been touched and transformed by digitization.

In the centuries-long epoch before alphabets and well before Guttenburg’s galaxy was colonized, story telling and information sharing were accomplished the old fashioned way – orally. Communication streams were fluid and rarely replicated with real precision.  Instead, oral histories and story traditions flowed from central tenants, varied in the telling as they flowed through time.  Communication was an act of memory, social interactivity, creativity, and present-tense, multisensual contexts (i.e. communicating by the hot fire, near those frog-chirpy trees, under the ruddy sunset sky…).

Alphabets solidified the stream.  They freeze the words in place forever, allowing a message to exist independently of the physical presence of the human messenger. Vellum, paper, and clay all substitute for a present-tense story teller, vibrations of air, and semiotic eyebrows.  As we’ve written in earlier posts, the wide spread of the paper codex eclipses orality with a print culture – one that puts the static paper book and its alphabetic encoding at the center of information transfer and story telling.  And this exchange has been at the center of civilization for some 10,000 years.

Things are different now. The advent of binary immediately disintermediated content from container.  And content is a multisensual stream once again.  Digital storage and design allows for the innovation of powerful forms of content delivery. These are post-book opportunities. These new forms allow for a return of the fluidity of yore.  Databases and APIs create a massive open memory archive.  Well-designed user interfaces allow access and amendment to multiple content forms and feeds.

These are our assertions:

We are post-book.  Digital affords us the opportunity to express book content in new effective forms and contexts.  The paper book is an object and as such is easily attended to with object metaphors.  Post-book artifacts and experiences are better characterized with stream metaphors.  Books are visual and tactile objects hinged, strung, and stitched into existence; post-books are engineered watershed ecosystems with multiple content streams and multisensual experiences.

Post-book artifacts and experiences provide
1. multifarious content
2. fluidity over fixity
3. sensuality over monosensual experience
4. multiple content streams
5. dynamic and social marginalia

Post-book content should follow the what we will call the “Daly Principle” after the writings of Liza Daly.  The principle may be stated thusly:  If a post-book work has a central content stream, the additional streams must be:

1. Nontrivial: natural and useful extensions of the central content such as primary source material, obscure topics, deep dives into related topics. These may be provided by the central content author, publisher, or other users. third parties.

2. Immersive: natural and useful extensions of the central content made available to the user “at the moment that these curiosities naturally arrive in the course of consuming the text.”

As a place rather then object, the post-book enables readers (users, visitors?) to co-author the text as well.  The content of a post-book experience may be authored by professional authors, the publisher, or readers.

Everything we state is already evident in the simplest of web pages. Hell, it was true of any MySpace page in 2001. It is true of several notable experiments with reading apps.  We are not calling for the invention of anything new.  Rather, we would like to bring these elements to bear directly on innovations in 1) digital storytelling vessels and 2) the mission statements of publishing companies old and new. Robust and courageous experimentation will yield the future.

By the way, we personally dislike the phrase post-book as a real name for what we describe – it is backwards-facing,  skeuomorphic, and hyphenated. We only employ it here for lack of the imagination to devise a better term.  Whosoever provides a better nomenclature for these new digital reading experiences wins a free phonebook…