Questioning the future of the written word

Something this weekend reminded me of the time I was too lazy to transcribe the builder’s order for materials and just scanned the plank he’d been writing on, so I could email it to the merchants.

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Later, I was talking to my friend David, who teaches at a university. These days, student papers are submitted and marked electronically. That won’t surprise you, I’m sure, but what impressed me was that David delivers his marks and feedback as audio files which the students can then listen to when they get their grades.

The students have responded positively to the audio feedback, and David finds it more efficient, too. He reads the paper once, then goes back through it dictating into his phone. Not only does he get the work done in less time, but it helps him to highlight the reading experience to his students: “By the time I get to this point in the essay, I’m lost, because you haven’t established your argument on the preceding pages.”

Another friend who works in a senior academic role refuses to give book reports in written form; instead, he will mark out two hours of his time and take editors and publishers through his comments orally, over the phone. It saves time, means he can work from his notes, and enables them to question him or seek clarification as they go.

Attendees working on tasks for Matt's workshop at the Royal Dutch Library

Earlier this month, I was leading an event for the Royal Dutch Library of the Netherlands exploring the future of our relationship to the written word. We pondered how new technologies and their social impact might affect this relationship, including developments in machine recognition of text and speech.

“If voice recognition and machine transcription were perfect,” we asked, “what would we gain? What would we lose?”

One of the first responses was immediate and positive. “No one would ever have to take minutes in a meeting again.”

We then started to explore issues around archiving and preservation, disability and accessibility, and division between technological ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’.

Such explorations formed the basis of our event’s opening activity, which encouraged participants to challenge their thinking about the future, rather than resting on the assumptions of the past. It’s part of an ongoing project at the library to develop a space which explores the Netherlands’ relationship to the written word.

The 1954 "Groene Boekje" guide to the Dutch language. Image by Wikipedia, used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.
The 1954 “Groene Boekje” guide to the Dutch language. Image by Wikipedia, used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.

This is particularly interesting in a Dutch context, because the Dutch language is regulated by an international treaty which seeks to maintain consistency between use in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Suriname.

The Dutch Language Union puts out a regular publication, the “Green Book”, which includes official spellings for all Dutch words. However, another publication – the “White Book” – suggests alternative rules which some Dutch publishers and firms have preferred to follow. (The official spelling reform of 2015 was particularly controversial).

 

 

 

All of this dispute, debate, and linguistic politics provided rich pickings for a group of Dutch culture and information professionals trying to imagine a library space devoted to the future of the written word in the heart of Den Haag.

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From speech recognition to linguistic treaties, graffiti and doodles, hate speech and ‘fake news’, the value of fan fiction, battles over privacy, piracy, and copyright, and the political power of the written word, there’s so much to be discussed when we imagine the future of reading and writing.

If you’d like to contemplate some of the questions we asked ourselves, you can read them in this PDF download.

Perspectiva colaborativa en las bibliotecas: Challenges & opportunities for Spain

Poster for the "perspectiva colaborativa" event in Spain, showing scissors and a silhouette of a human head full of gears on a cutting board

Courtesy of the Spanish Ministry of Culture & Sport, plus the Ubik Tabakalera library in San Sebastian, I’ll be joining librarians, architects, culture professionals, and other stakeholders in the future of public libraries for a one-day workshop exploring challenges & opportunities in community collaboration.

What does it mean for these institutions to join forces with organisations, institutions, businesses, non-profit entities, users and potential users, when designing & delivering the services of the future?

How might libraries serve as spaces of collective creation & learning, and how would this service relate to their traditional mission and brand?

How could awareness of the wider transactional and contextual environment affect the way libraries define and negotiate their own future?

I’ll be joined by librarians from across southern Europe to explore these issues in an open, participatory, multidisciplinary format. In addition, our host venue is Ubik Tabakalera, one of the most fascinating public libraries in Europe, headed by the fiercely impressive Arantza Mariskal.

Spanish speakers who love their library and want to help shape its future should join us  in the Basque Country on 30th May for a day of discussion and debate.

Read more at the Spanish Ministry of Culture & Sport’s website.

Toronto iSchool, 6-7 June: Learning to Plan on Library Island

We can’t predict the future, yet we do it all the time. We have to: there are objectives to be set and met, projects to be devised and delivered, holidays to be booked, birthdays to celebrate, mouths to be fed, children to raise, dreams to be fulfilled.

Sometimes people and organisations anticipate the future based on what has gone before – but then we risk being blindsided by social and sectoral changes, financial crises, political upsets, natural disasters, and complex systemic challenges.

So, how do we prepare for futures characterised by turbulence and uncertainty?

What methods help information professionals to develop foresight, insight, and awareness that will support decisions made for their communities, teams, and institutions?

Welcome to Library Island.

This June, visit the University of Toronto’s iSchool – “Learning to Plan on Library Island” – to develop skills and awareness which will help you to deal effectively with potential threats, opportunities, and challenges.

This two-day event will feature speakers including Peter Morville, author of Planning for Everything; Stephen Abram of Lighthouse Consulting; and Rebecca Jones & Jane Dysart of Dysart & Jones. I’ll also be there to offer insights gathered from information professionals working with institutions, communities, and businesses around the world.

Experienced consultants and leaders in the information profession will share planning tips, tricks, and methodologies. Participants will explore and experiment with new ways to develop their strategy, vision, and mission, including sessions of the Library Island play-based activity.

It’ll be provocative, inspiring, practical, challenging, and fun. Visit http://www.thefutureoflibraries.org to see more about this June’s University of Toronto iSchool – we’d love to see you there.

Workshop at the KB Atelier

This week I led a workshop at the Royal Library of the Netherlands in the Hague (it’s called the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, or KB, in Dutch).

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Just over thirty professionals from the library, archive, museum, and education sectors gathered to help the organisation develop its concept for the KB Atelier.

This will be a space for exploring, experimenting, and co-designing new formats for public engagement at the KB. The Atelier is in the business of finding fresh & valuable ways to celebrate and investigate the power of the written word for the 21st century, in collaboration with partners old and new.

I designed the workshop for Erik Boekesteijn and the brilliant team of KB staff assigned to this project, aiming to inspire debate, capture bright ideas, and build a community of interest and practice for further development of the Atelier concept.

The session combined design thinking tools and customised activities with elements designed to provoke debate about the future of our relationship to the written word.

The future is a difficult space for institutions – hard to predict or foresee, impossible to gather evidence from – and it was thrilling to challenge some of the Netherlands’ brightest cultural-sector minds as they contemplated possible futures for the written Dutch language.

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The session served to illuminate the landscape through which the Atelier might take KB’s visitors and staff on future journeys. Now the business begins of designing and building the roads and bridges which will traverse that landscape.

Watch this space for more developments at the KB.

Imagination Unleashed: Libraries’ Contribution to the Future of the Knowledge Economy

 

The global innovation foundation Nesta has just published Imagination unleashed: Democratising the knowledge economy, a report on building inclusion in the era of radical change shaped by digital infrastructures, networks, services, and products.

It’s a compelling document which explores current challenges to our societies and sets out a broad-ranging agenda for addressing them in ways which promote inclusion and equity.

Reading this report from an information professional’s perspective suggests a great number of opportunities for libraries and other information institutions to play a part in making a fairer and more prosperous world, where more people get to realise their full potential.

In this post, I’m going to talk you through the report, suggesting a few of the implications and opportunities – and I’d encourage anyone interested in the future of knowledge to check out the report alongside this commentary. Read more

#NotEnoughSciFi : Strategy, Scenarios, and “Annihilation”

#NotEnoughSciFi is an occasional series looking at works of science fiction and fantasy which I think might be useful for organisations, institutions, companies, and communities which are trying to get ready for the shape of things to come.

This week’s entry focusses on Jeff Vandermeer’s “Southern Reach Trilogy”, the first book of which was adapted into the Netflix movie Annihilation last yearSee previous entries from #NotEnoughSciFi here.

The most common source of management mistakes is not the failure to find the right answers. It is the failure to ask the right questions. Nothing is more dangerous in business than the right answer to the wrong question.

– Peter Drucker

After a mysterious event, an unknown force takes over a backwater of the southeastern US coast. Warded from the outside world by a barrier that defies physicists’ understanding, the so-called “Area X” begins to distort the environment in ways which are difficult to study, record, or comprehend.

Still from the Netflix movie

Over a period of years, a government agency tasked with understanding and controlling the zone sends in countless expeditions, to little avail. The latest group, composed entirely of women, also succumbs to the zone’s weird dangers. The sole returning survivor, a taciturn biologist, is compromised by her encounter with Area X – but what has happened to her? And what does it mean for the affected zone – or for life as we know it on Earth?

This is the world of Jeff Vandermeer’s “Southern Reach Trilogy” –  Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance – the first instalment of which was filmed by Netflix, with Natalie Portman in the lead role, last year.

Netflix’s Annihilation is a visually sumptuous adventure which challenges sci-fi’s traditional gender imbalances by following an all-women team of explorers into the mysterious zone. But there are even richer pickings to be found in Vandermeer’s trilogy.

The “Southern Reach” books offer a complex exploration of institutional and personal encounters with unknown or uncontrollable phenomena. Their refusal to offer easy answers, their dissection of office politics and power relations, and their critique of the structures by which we seek to make sense of and control the world, all make them valuable fodder for a special edition of #NotEnoughScifi.
Read more

Auf der Trauminsel der Bibliotheken: Bibliothekskongress Leipzig

I’ll be at next month’s Bibliothekskongress in Leipzig, a gathering of German-speaking librarians and information professionals. If you’re attending, come say hello and talk Library Island – or catch me online.

Ändern sich Bibliotheken zu schnell oder nicht schnell genug?

Was bieten wir einer Welt, die sich schnell und radikal zu verändern scheint?

Wie sieht gute Führung in der Bibliothek des 21. Jahrhunderts aus?

Wie können wir für Zeiten der Veränderung planen?

Um antworten zu finden, besuchen Sie Library Island.

Library Island simuliert fünf Jahre im Leben von Bibliotheken in einem kleinen Land. Die Spieler übernehmen die Rolle von Bibliothekaren, Regierungs- und Gemeindemitgliedern.

Die Spieler verhandeln politische Konflikte und soziale Herausforderungen (oder sogar Naturkatastrophen!) und passen das Spiel dann an ihre eigenen lokalen Probleme.

Es ist ein einfaches Spiel, das nur mit Papier und Stiften gespielt wird, aber es ermöglicht den Spielern, komplexe Szenarien und unbequeme Themen zu besprechen.

Ich habe Library Island entwickelt, um Organisationen zu unterstützen, ihre Vision und Mission für die Zukunft zu definieren und umzusetzen. Library Island schafft Raum für die Erkundung einer ungewissen oder schwierigen Zukunft und hilft Mitarbeitern, Führungskräften und Trägern einen strategischen Standpunkt zu entwickeln.

Man kann Library Island als eigenständigen Workshop oder als Teil eines umfassenderen strategischen Prozesses nutzen. Es ist spielerisch, belebend, zum Nachdenken anregend und macht sogar Spaß!

Learn more about Library Island here.

Dreaming Spires, New Scenarios

I’m pleased to announce I’ll be joining the team at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School (SBS) as a facilitator on the upcoming Oxford Scenarios Programme.

'Dreaming Spires', by Flickr User JJBullock - Copyright JJ Bullock 2010
‘Dreaming Spires’, by Flickr User JJBullock – Copyright JJ Bullock 2010

The programme offers an intensive course in developing strategies which address multiple plausible futures. You can find out more about the programme at the SBS website.

Bandersnatch: Choosing a Future, Letting People Surprise You

Over at The Cultural Gutter, there’s a thoughtful piece about Netflix’s recent interactive film, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.

The choose-your-own adventure film allowed viewers to shape the story of a young programmer trying to develop a computer game in 1984. Presented with either-or choices to make via their TV’s remote control, someone watching Bandersnatch can influence the outcome of the narrative – but as the story develops, the choices are increasingly unpalatable and the question of who is controlling whom becomes increasingly prominent.

The Cultural Gutter’s Alex Macfadyen writes:

What watching Bandersnatch felt like to me was entrapment. A choice between two terrible things is still a choice, but I often didn’t agree with any of the available options. There also seemed to be no way to avoid making some of the choices because you just got brought back to them after the other options resulted in a dead end. The writers clearly had a very specific moral direction they wanted the story to go, and the viewer is ultimately corralled into creating the narrative they want.

Part of that narrative was the construction of me, the viewer, as the person forcing the character to make bad choices and lose his mind, but the viewer also only has access to the paths that the writers dictated for them so it’s more an illusion of choice. There is no path that leads to a good outcome, but you have to follow them all to find that out. In the end, I think the only choice you could make that would resolve the ethical conflict they’ve posed would be to refuse to participate and stop watching altogether.

Playing Bandersnatch, and reading Macfadyen afterwards, reminded me of a British Library Labs event I attended a couple of years back.

Jon Ingold, who has made several great choose-your-own adventure games including the subtle and troubling World War 2 drama The Interceptspoke about the relationship between players and authors of such adventures.

Rejecting the language of “empowering players” or “co-creating game narratives together”, Ingold described adventure games as puzzles where the author attempts to lure the player into a trap of their own choosing – a trap to which the player must then find a brilliant escape. The player is never in control of the story, any more than the rat who turns left or right at a given corner is in control of the maze.

These problems of choice and control lie at the heart of the workshops I’ve been running over the past couple of years. To what extent can we allow participants in an event to surprise us?

I’ve devised participatory sessions for literary festivals, conferences, and training events; run live-action games where players must battle zombies and solve practical problems; I’ve even written a book review in the form of an online choose-your-own adventure for Australian literary magazine The Lifted Brow.

The challenge for me has always been – how can you let people surprise you?

Choose-your-own adventures, from Bandersnatch to Ingold’s more sophisticated offerings, are ultimately more like mazes which one can only choose to run or not run. (The promo art for Bandersnatch helps to make this clear).

black-mirror-bandersnatch

In activities like Library Island, I’ve been trying to devise opportunities for people to tell their own stories and genuinely shape the outcome of a collective narrative – the benchmark for this being whether the players were able to do something the author didn’t see coming.

Library Island players have brought fraud, civil unrest, and workers’ rights issues to sessions – helping us to address the most serious challenges to a community within the safer space of a playful, fictional setting. In the very first pilot for the game, a character stole a plane which they had illegally bought using government funds – something I definitely hadn’t accounted for – and an event which led on to serious discussion of scrutiny, oversight, and accountability for the use of public money.

Since then, players have only made the problem worse — delightfully worse.

Games which genuinely let people contribute to the outcome of a story also have the potential to change the way we look at the future.

Too often, when planning for the months and years to come, we see our options as constrained, like the forking but pre-written paths of Bandersnatch and its kin, railroading us towards a limited number of possible futures.

This can sap our ability to imagine a better world than the one we expect, but it can also make us vulnerable to harmful futures we didn’t see coming; financial crises, political upsets, and environmental disasters, for example.

In a turbulent era, finding ways to allow many voices to offer their story and participate in constructing plausible future scenarios help us to prepare for the world which is to come – a world which has not been pre-written by a game designer, and which therefore denies us both the safety and constraint of someone else’s narrative.

Read more about Library Island here.

Play The Lifted Brow‘s “choose-your-own adventure book review” here.