Thursday, 11 September 2008

bob stein's unified field theory of publishing in the networked era

The whole of Bob's fascinating paper can be found at, the blog of the Institute for the Future of the Book, but here's the beginning to whet your appetite:

The following is a set of notes, written over several months, in an attempt to weave together a number of ideas that have emerged in the course of the institute's work. I'm hoping for a lot of feedback. If there's enough interest, we'll put this into CommentPress so that the discussion can be more extensive than the blog's comment field.


I’ve been exploring the potential of “new media” for nearly thirty years. There was an important aha moment early on when I was trying to understand the essential nature of books as a medium. The breakthrough came when i stopped thinking about the physical form or content of books and focused instead on how they are used. At that time print was unique compared to other media, in terms of giving its users complete control of the sequence and pace at which they accessed the contents. The ability to re-read a paragraph until its understood, to flip back and forth almost instantly between passages, to stop and write in the margins, or just think — this affordance of reflection (in a relatively inexpensive portable package) was the key to understanding why books have been such a powerful vehicle for moving ideas across space and time. I started calling books user-driven media — in contrast to movies, radio, and television, which at the time were producer-driven. Once microprocessors were integrated into audio and video devices, I reasoned, this distinction would disappear. However — and this is crucial — back in 1981 I also reasoned that its permanence was another important defining aspect of a book. The book of the future would be just like the book of the past, except that it might contain audio and video on its frozen "pages." This was the videodisc/cdrom era of electronic publishing.

The emergence of the web turned this vision of the book of the future as a solid, albeit multimedia object completely upside down and inside out. Multimedia is engaging, especially in a format that encourages reflection, but locating discourse inside of a dynamic network promises even more profound changes Reading and writing have always been social activities, but that fact tends to be obscured by the medium of print. We grew up with images of the solitary reader curled up in a chair or under a tree and the writer alone in his garret. The most important thing my colleagues and I have learned during our experiments with networked books over the past few years is that as discourse moves off the page onto the network, the social aspects are revealed in sometimes startling clarity. These exchanges move from background to foreground, a transition that has dramatic implications.


I haven’t published anything for nearly twelve years because, frankly, I didn't have a model that made any sense to me. One day when I was walking around the streets of London I suddenly I realized I did have a model. I jokingly labeled my little conceptual breakthrough "a unified field theory of publishing," but the more I think about it, the more apt that sounds, because getting here has involved understanding how a number of different aspects both compliment and contradict each other to make up a dynamic whole. I’m excited about this because for the first time the whole hangs together for me. I hope it will for you too. if not, please say where the model breaks, or which parts need deepening, fixing or wholesale reconsideration.

key questions a unified field theory has to answer:

* What are the characteristics of a successful author in the era of the digital network?
* Ditto for readers: how do you account for the range of behaviors that comprise reading in the era of the digital network?
* What is the role of the publisher and the editor?
* What is the relationship between the professional (author) and the amateur (reader)?
* Do the answers to 1–4 afford a viable economic model?

Now read on!

1 comment:

Jane Ross said...

Hi Chris, I've been hunting for the complete text of Bob Stein's paper but can't seem to find it at the link you gave, nor even by Googling for it. Can you point me to the correct link? Thanks so much. Jane R