The Future of Books: It Doesn’t Have to be Dolphins

According to James Warner, we’re in deep trouble, literarily. Or at least we will be. Fast forward 70-odd years and what was once the domain of Goethe and Shakespeare has been taken over by vampire-obsessed dolphins. It’s a whacky, somewhat exaggerated depiction (we’re probably at least 150 years off from dolphin vampire romps) of the state books are currently in and the direction we’re headed in.

All joking aside, much of what Warner presents tongue-in-cheek is not necessarily the bleak dolphin-filled future he promises us. Whether we like it or not, it seems crowdsourcing will figure into our future one way or another. It need not be a paint-by-numbers approach to literature with big data (or Big Data if you prefer) or the will of the masses. Books are not limited to just popular fiction and the trappings of the brows (high, low or middle). For example, the world of scholarly publishing and academia has been moving towards digital forms, if not en masse, at least more so than trade publishers.

I think it’s important, though, when having these discussions to keep the context in mind. A fish may be able to play Pokemon, and it is decidedly not a robot of any kind. There’s nothing to say you couldn’t conduct an experiment similar to the fish playing Pokemon with composing a story, and it would be interesting. All this isn’t to say that this should be the only kind of literature and entertainment out there. Warner seems to be cautioning that even considering such projects will lead to our dolphinated ruination by virtue of invoking dolphin vampire literature in the first place. This is where the context is most important.

If we left our literature up to the fishes or the masses or big data, our future may be vampire dolphin riddled, but I do not believe anyone is prepared to leave it up to the dolphins or the fishes. As this Vice piece on bots points out, so much of the bots and seemingly autonomous creations we interact with are actually cyborgs—part human controlled, part bot controlled. That fish may play Pokemon, but he didn’t go out and buy a Gameboy all by his lonesome. It’s not a book, but it helps illustrate how the human/bot interactions plays out. Other examples include the semi-automated Twitter accounts where a human will write and create Tweets while other routine functions are automated. It presents an opportunity for computer-assisted, rather than Big Data controlled. For books this could be as simple as using algorithms and big data to help long-tail books reach their long-tail audience better. It doesn’t have to lead to dolphins.

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