To consume media today means using the same tools and skills as it takes to produce; the device in your pocket is capable of both and its platforms are built with this in mind. This is a profound shift, even from the assumptions that underlie the web, and it’s a landscape in which, superficially, the book does not seem to have an obvious place.
In the latest edition of his newsletter, marginalia, Australia’s Simon Groth describes the closure of if:book Australia, the Brisbane-based “institute for the future of the book” which explored new forms of literature and the changing relationship between writers and readers in the digital age.
if:book projects included a book written and published in just 24 hours, the live-writing event series Memory Makes Us, the N00bz project which saw writers take up tools and formats which were strange to them, the “remixed memoir” collection Lost in Track Changes, and Hunted Down, another “remix” of short stories by nineteenth-century author Marcus Clarke.
Simon’s elegaic piece recounts his journey with if:book as “one of being swept up by larger shifts in current that made it possible—if only for a brief moment in time—to create interesting experiences and opportunities for a small number of writers and readers to engage with each other”.
The anxieties and excitement around digital literature in the 2010s, back when some thought that “the ebook spelled the end of civilisation as we know it”, created an opportunity for the if:book community to surf for a while on some of the more challenging and remote parts of Australia’s literary coastline. No matter how many people were standing on the shore to bear witness, those surfers know what they achieved. The tricks and techniques they discovered will continue to teach all of us who are interested in the future of the written word, both digital and physical.
Today, Simon notes, if:book Australia has no web presence:
Its various project sites have all vanished, their domains no longer point to active sites. Its social media accounts are deleted. If not for the Internet Archive, there would be almost no online evidence that any of it had happened. Maybe this was how it was meant to be. Memory Makes Us had already anticipated disappearance as the logical end for digital literary projects. Such is the nature of the web and digital media more broadly: the threat of data rot is much more aggressive and immediate than the slow degradation of the page.
[…] Ten years on from its initial flurry of activity, its bold charge to explore and investigate how technology was set to expand our conception of the book, all that’s left of if:book Australia is a collection of printed, bound pages.