The Death of the Reader
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Readers are increasingly creating and changing the narrative of books, actively blurring the distinction between author and reader. This not only effects narrative but economic models, myths of single authorship, production models, and questions about conflations of practices such as publishing (books) and exporting (files). In this talk, Adam will look at practices which relocate the reader as the protagonist in content *creation* and how that makes non-sense of legacy publishing and new-sense of emerging paradigms.
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My name is Adam Hyde. I'm from New Zealand, and you have to pronounce that correctly—New Zealand. I'm here to talk about “the death of the reader”, but it's a specific take on “the death of the reader”. It's talking about the empowerment of the reader to stop waiting for publishers, in essence, so I'm going to unpack this a little bit. I framed it as the transition from reader to collaborative knowledge producer.
A little bit of background on me very quickly: I've been an artist, was involved with an organization Radio ———- some years ago. I've been a manager of radio stations. I sort of found my way into the space of publications, I guess you could say, or knowledge production through Floss Manuals—an organization I started for production of free manuals about free software—and from this developed platforms for collaborative knowledge production, book production, and also methodologies, and one of those being the BookSprints.
So, the BookSprints I've been working on for six years or so. I founded this methodology about five and a half, six years ago, and really have been exploring it in a lot of different areas, and I just want to unpack that with regards to this idea of not being a reader anymore. So, that’s the context.
I want to just throw a rope around what a reader is. I want to define a reader for this instance–and I know readers are many things–but I want to look at the reader as being somebody with knowledge needs. So, I'm talking outside of the fiction box right now. I'm just talking about books as units of knowledge and the reader typically being somebody who has knowledge needs, buys a book, and gets fulfilled on some level towards satisfying their goal of learning something or knowing about something.
I want to also define the reader as not necessarily being someone that consumes what publishers make, which is I think we get confused when we talk about books and knowledge artifacts. We confuse this question about what is a book with actually what is the publishing industry’s business model. I want to get outside of that. I want to talk about the reader as something else, specifically this idea of a person with knowledge needs.
Typically, we think about readers with knowledge needs waiting for knowledge artifacts to be produced and delivered to them by the publishing industry, so this is what I would refer to as publishing. I know this is a very specific take on it. I'm not trying to argue outside of that. I just want to cut off the slither and look at this proposition.
I want to talk about specifically collaborative knowledge production, where readers don't have to wait for the delivery of this knowledge, but they can actually work together to meet their own knowledge needs, so produce knowledge for their own needs. You might need a book on something, so instead of waiting around for the book to come to you from the publisher, you actually get out there and you make this book for yourself in a very immersive and interesting way. This is what I would call collaborative knowledge production: readers producing their own knowledge.
I've done a lot of quantitative empirical research, and I've made a very sophisticated graph here, which represents the collaborative spectrum. I want to talk not about crowdsourcing. I want to put crowdsourcing at the weak end of a collaborative spectrum, and I want to put on the strong end of the collaborative spectrum other things. One specifically that I want to unpack because this is where I draw my experience from, BookSprints, is at the strong end of the collaboration spectrum, but it’s not the only item. I'm just placing this case here because this is what I have knowledge of.
Weak collaborative knowledge production, I'm not talking about weak in the sense of it's no good. I'm just talking about its weak collaboration. We typically have thrown a lot into the crowdsourcing pot and said well that's where all the cool stuff is. We can all get together and things happen, but I would like to put forward the idea that this is weak collaboration. Generally, it’s a passive model, and I'm talking generally. It's coordination through technical frameworks often. I'm thinking about the “here comes everybody” kind of ideas. It's little or no human coordination, and it's coordination rather than horizontal collaboration, isolated producers, small contributions, and no shared visions.
That's one end. On the other end, I want to talk about strong collaborative production, which is something more active. It's not passive. The technical framework is not the coordinating mechanism; it's an enabler for the collaboration to happen. There is strong human facilitation. This is extremely important. It’s intensely connected contributors. It’s large contributions, shared vision, and one of the examples is the BookSprints.
For collaborative knowledge production to work, we must learn the mechanics of the collaborative spectrum. We must know where on this collaborative knowledge production spectrum we need to sit to derive the kind of knowledge that we need from the resources that we have.
I want to go very specifically into one example. This is an example of strong collaborative knowledge production. This is a small NGO called Open Oil, a fantastic NGO. They're all about oil transparency, oil industry transparency, what they call the extractive industries. This is Johnny West, great guy, lives in Berlin. He's the founder of the NGO Open Oil, and Johnny needs a book. He's been waiting for a book so that he can do workshops to actually make the oil industry transparent to people so that they can have a voice in it, they can understand what's going on. Because he's in this network, he also realizes that there are other people that have a need for this kind of book.
One of them is Jay Park QC. He's a managing partner. (This is a real story, I should say. I didn't deliberately choose people that you think would not normally collaborate. I kind of did, but it's from a true story. ) So, Jay, great guy, managing partner at Park Energy Law and Petroleum Regimes Advisory. This is a snippet from his CV, and he is the instructor of an international petroleum transactions course at the University of Calgary. He's been around for a long time. He's been on all sides of the fence, and he's an oil contract lawyer. He needs a book because he teaches this stuff, and he needs a textbook to get it in front of people so that they actually have a textbook. There’s no textbook out there that will suit his needs to teach this kind of material.
There are other people out there in this network that they reach out to. This is, again, a very interesting cross-section because this is not necessarily the kind of people that you think about when you think about intensive collaboration. Multinational oil company lawyers. People like Peter Eigan, head of Transparency International. He needs a book. Cindy Kroon. Again, these are all part of the network. She needs a book for the World Bank. Herbert M'cLeod needs a book. He's from Sierra Leone. Susan Maples, a legal advisor to the Liberian president. Geoff Peters of corporate counsel. Nadine Stiller from GIZ in Deutschland. Lynn is from an NGO in Uganda. Sebastian, who's actually an environmental contract lawyer, and Nurlan, who's a legal advisor to Azerbaijan's state oil company. These people, very high-level people who know this stuff intimately are all from different sides of the fence: watchdogs, oil companies, and governments. They all deal with oil contracts, and they all want material to explain how oil contracts work so they can all do their job better.
So what do they do? They hire a small castle. They hire me, and they don't wait for the publishers importantly. They decide to make the book themselves, the book they need, and the readers produce a knowledge by this strong collaborative knowledge production method that I'm talking about.
This is what it looks like in essence. It's a strongly facilitated process. It’s these people that I showed you in these previous screenshots all getting together and working together in a very intensive and merciful way. It's a fascinating process. I was taking the photos, so you can't seem me, but I would be here. They're paying such attention to what I'm telling them. It's a facilitated process, but it’s a very egalitarian process, like bringing all of these people to the same table on the same plane and taking them through a collaborative knowledge production process, in this instance to create an artifact. I'll talk about that in just a little bit.
This is just some ambient shots of this process. One of the most important things in this kind of process is literally breaking bread together, sitting together and eating, talking about things, living together in the same room in the castle, working together, and eating together. And just some photographs of the process.
So, they make a book. They go to this small castle just outside of Berlin, Schloss, and they conceptualize the book. They go there with the title. They go there with the network, and that's it. Then, they conceptualize the book. They kind of have title and subtitle: Oil Contracts: How To Read and Understand Them. They get together. They conceptualize it, facilitated through the process of understanding the scope of what they can achieve in that period and what this book is going to be and who it's for. They write it. They illustrate it. (I had a picture of and illustrator there, Lynn Harris, who was part of this.) They proofread it. They edit it. They do everything. At the end of the process, they send it to the printer. They produce epub, mobi, screen formatted PDF, everything that they need to do.
They do this all in five days, and they produce this knowledge artifact, which I would call a book, in this instance, and the book being very important in this area because it's good for finding grants, it's good for putting on the table at workshops, it's good for acquittals, it's good for outreach, it's good for textbooks, all of this stuff. It's a unit of knowledge that people understand and has a transactional value. And it's successful.
We all know downloads. I can't tell you how much of that is spambots but 49,800. This is a very specific niche that these guys are fulfilling with this content. So, at least we can think that there's a significant percentage of that which is going to the right place. The most important thing about this is that they're fulfilling the knowledge needs of their constituency, and they are the best people to do that because they are the reader. They are the consumers of this material. They know what they need, and they also know the information. They have it all together, and they bring it to this book. They’re fulfilling their own needs. They’re fulfilling the needs of the constituency. Much more important than sales or download numbers in these kinds of instances.
It's been translated already. There is a second BookSprints lined up for mining contracts. There are two more localization BookSprints. Now, this is very interesting. This looked at, I think, eight different oil regions and generalized it into what a general generic oil contract might look like and how you would understand it. Now they're taking this, and they’re taking it to specific countries and getting with the people locally and doing the same thing again, using that as the base point but localizing it and looking at specific issues to generate another book using the first book as the baseline content and making it specific to their country.
This is why, for example, Peter here, pictured left, is very interested in it because he wants to do this for Nigeria. He's part of the extractive industries transparency initiative, and he couldn't get a book. The book in this instance is a book. You can hold it and print it out, but he didn't have a copy of the perfect bound book, couldn't get it. So, Johnny printed one off and what was interesting in the e-mail that I got from Johnny about this is that Peter then asked Johnny to sign it, this print out. This has that transactional value. This has that authority that people are so worried about: what is a book and where is this authority going. This book has that authority, in my opinion, from what I understand from the people inside of the sector.
It's not just a book. It's a website. It's a PDF. It's a print out. It's been used for teaching and outreach. It's been used by, and I can't say who, one of the evil empire oil companies for induction training, interestingly, and it's been used by Peter.
I just want to posit this point. We don't have to think about this model of books and everything, the ecology that we have associated around it, in terms of non-fiction works, in terms of the authoritative publisher creating a work and then delivering it to you, and you're waiting there for that book, and there it comes, and you're happy to have it at last. Or, it didn't quite suit your needs. You needed something that was just a little bit more about this. Actually, you don't have to be that person that just consumes what publishers make. You can actually be someone with knowledge needs and not wait for it to be delivered but actually produce that knowledge yourself. I think this idea of taking responsibility for our own knowledge needs and producing these artifacts through strong collaborative knowledge production, I personally believe, has a massive and very interesting future. I'm happy to talk to anyone further about that that wants to here me rant.