I just attended the Books in Browsers (BiB) conference, which I program with the support of the Internet Archive and O'Reilly Media. BiB, held within the luminous sanctuary at the Internet Archive in San Francisco, a former Christian Science church, is distinguished from other conferences by its focus on the software engineers and user experience designers who are creating new, born-digital ways of telling stories, and it's indicative of the audience that the most sought-after enhancement for future shows to was add a hackfest the day after the main sessions, something we will definitely incorporate in 2013.
At BiB, startups vastly outnumber established companies, and the conference has evolved into a venue for debuting new ventures and services. Rather than try to canvass the range of discussions, I'll highlight two personal, profound impressions. The first, which I believe was shared with many of the attendees, crystallized on Friday morning after two back-to-back edge-y presentations: the first by Liza Daly and Keith Fahlgren of Safari Books Online, and the second from Blaine Cook and Maureen Evans, launching a new venture called Poeti.ca. Liza's and Keith's presentation was a demo of a collaborative editing tool with voice recognition software recording their keynote in realtime, integrating github and Google Docs for revision control. Poeti.ca is an online multi-user copyediting tool with a beautiful user interface and intuitive operation, befitting a startup that unites the original developer of Twitter and creator of OAuth, with a poet who has innovated in the application of social media to writing. As Blaine suggested, "What we are trying to create is a sense of joy."
In their most fundamental aspect, the punch of these presentations was less the power of either one, individually. Indeed, the Safari presentation mostly, but didn't quite wholly "work." Rather it was the goosebump and chills moment you get when you realized that you were watching insanely smart, thoughtful and creative people reinventing publishing right in front of your eyes, hacking together fledgling applications of great beauty and breathtaking promise. Almost certainly, the moment would not have had the impact it did without the many speakers who set the ground on the prior day, and the many excited conversations among the band gathered in this small place. But it did happen, and you sensed in that moment just how often it will happen again - over and over again, without end.
What we witnessed, to cite John Maxwell from Simon Fraser University, was a transcendence of contemporary publishing. BiB speakers were not trying to repair or modernize publishing. Rather, they were designing new solutions for a world in which story-telling takes advantage of networked tools for sharing insights and art. Such solutions may well lead many existing publishers into new and exciting places; on the other hand, they may not. BiB did not speak to it: indeed, nothing at BiB served to "obsolete" or replace publishing. But it is clear that we are on the threshold of an explosion of new services, spreading across many niches of story-telling that never before were beneficiaries of Internet technologies.
As Maxwell notes, we are watching a divesture of literature from the act of publishing as we have conceived it for the last 150 years. It was that insight of BiB that chilled everyone in the Sanctuary to the bone that Friday morning. How we publish - how we tell stories - is increasingly liberated from the formerly necessary contributions of companies like Random House and Penguin, Hachette and Simon & Schuster. Simply put, these firms are no longer necessary for the creation of literature. They may present significant advantages in marketing, production, and for years yet, in the distribution of print. Yet, as authors gather the spirits within themselves to create, they will increasingly draw up a panoply of online tools and services that could not care a whit for all that made publishing possible in the past.
That's the lesson for me: the new publishing doesn't care about formats, it cares about story-telling. It is neutral about content-types, because all content-types can be manipulated on the web. That may seem prosaic, but it is actually revolutionary. We're used to seeing tools that add video to textual narratives, or synchronize audio-based playback. But when you invent tools for the web, you can manipulate a vast array of content within the browser, and an author's ability to integrate the reader into the experience of the story has few constraints. Indeed, one can expect those constraints to continue to yield under the pressure of increasingly flexible representations. As Popcorn's surrogate use of transcripts for video editing demonstrates, there is no reason why text-based stories might not ultimately serve as a playwright's script for a machine's rendering of immersive, multi-sensual experiences that resemble portable holodecks. Once technology liberates vision, it is only a matter of imagination becoming real.
To the extent it was successful, Books in Browsers was one small window into that.