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What is being proposed by Blockchain Book?
An experiment by Google Creative Lab Sydney’s Tea Uglow
Books you have finished reading may be passed on to your offspring or taken to a used book store, but with electronic books, their ownership is rather uncertain to begin with. This is because the reader merely purchases a license. Books from “Editions at Play” launched by Google this spring are part of a project that uses the distributed database Blockchain, which is the core technology behind Bitcoin. Its developer, Tea Uglow of Google Sydney, questions the future of electronic books through her experiment.
By Kyoko Nakajima
Layers in Blockchain books
Editions at Play is a project that pursues the possibility of electronic books. It is led by Google Creative Lab Sydney’s creative director Tea Uglow and published four books including a story that is linked with Street View and a graphic novel with strong animation elements as its first release in 2016. In the spring of this year, a new novel from Editions at Play titled A Universe Explodes written by Uglow herself was published. This involves a relay of 100 people linked with Blockchain each eliminating two words from each 128 word page then adding one word and passing it on to the next person to create 100 different stories. The name of the editors that made the alterations are also recorded, and anybody other than the registered users can also read them.
This book called Blockchain Book is attracting various reactions, from those who welcome it saying, “It truly is a new form of electronic books” and those who despise it claiming, “It is disrespectful to the original.” The book made me think how much respect there actually is for the originals in web content. We see various articles on the net daily, but many of them have similar contents. Copy and paste is taken for granted in the digital world, and perhaps nobody really takes note of who the original writer is. In that sense, this Blockchain book is rather fair as it reveals the name of the writer as well as the editors who altered the content later. When I asked Uglow about its originality, she replied, “There are many layers in this Blockchain book. I don’t want to give a definite statement, but I can say I want to show a certain direction in electronic books.”
The difference between “look” and “see”
“If you reread a printed book from 20 years ago, you will probably have a different kind of experience,” Uglow continued. “A book has a long life and a relationship with the reader to that extent. But do we carry the same sentiment towards electronic books?”
Many people want to acquire useful information from the net, but Uglow says they “look” but don’t get as far as “seeing” in most cases. In other words, they try too hard to catch up with new technologies that appear one after another and don’t notice the various perspectives held within the technology itself. She says, “In today’s digital world, there is a culture that only praises new things. In the dawn of digital art, there were many abstract and meaningful projects, but it is now difficult for that kind of project to be born. Moreover, people no longer feel value in information and things that can be accessed freely by anyone.” Through the Blockchain book, Uglow casts doubt not only on the ownership but also value of digital content.
Abstract expression in digital
“Every language has the history of adding the essence of another language and creating new nuances. In that sense, a day may come when the digital emoji is used in the same manner as a regular language as means of new expressions,” says Uglow who is already developing the third book in Editions at Play. In this book, the storyline shifts through various themes and angles including the west, the orient, and genders based on a vanilla (default in computer jargon, but simply means “ordinary” here) story. Uglow continues, “In the digital realm, stories in which various tales intertwine may become possible in 5 to 10 years. When that time comes, what will happen if each of us does not have the creativity to play with words no matter how simple they are?”
In today’s world of the Internet, short, simple, and direct expressions are preferred because we want to convey our thoughts without causing any misunderstanding, and there isn’t much room for the abstract quality and creativity seen in Uglow’s project. She says, “It perhaps too early to define the expressive method in the digital realm at this point in time. Encouraging simple and direct expressions above all represents the fact a certain kind of white male developer is still leading the digital world.”
The starting point of many projects led by Uglow is a perspective that asks who is creating today’s digital trends and do they cast doubts on their vision.
From Sci Fi to Harry Potter
“Developers in their 40s who lead the digital industry today were probably into sci-fi novels by authors including William Gibson and Bruce Sterling during the ‘80s to ‘90s,” says Uglow. She says those who develop robots and VR today have masculine visions with near-future cosmic and cyber punk aspirations, but in an uplifted mood continues, “Tastes during childhood and adolescence influence one’s later aspirations. With that in mind, the next generation who got into Harry Potter may free digital from PC and VR screens, develop not magic wands but simple devices and create a world where people can appreciate the digital even in nature.”
At TED in 2015, Uglow talked about The Lamp that enables enjoying the Internet without a screen and The Binoculars that allow seeing world heritages in various countries using traditional binoculars. Uglow has been exploring the future of the digital for some time now.
A small project detached from commercialism
At the Sydney Writers’ Festival last year, Uglow spoke on the historical relationship between doubt and creativity, and the speech was made into a printed book titled A Curiosity of Doubts. At the podium she said, “Doubt can wear us down―it can help us to grow and create, and change our lives,” and revealed she was transgender and in a process of undergoing a gender change. “I have no intention to hide the fact I was a man because I’m happy now.” As to the reason she chose Sydney as a ground for her activity despite being British, she says, “Because I wanted an environment where I could think deeply without being swayed by trends in technology. I told Google that I wanted to do small projects that were detached from commercialism.”
Abstract nature that does not claim any clear statement may be margins for interpretations and creativity for the receiving side. It seems Uglow’s small projects will continue to greatly stir our emotions.
1. Tea Uglow was born in Britain. After graduating in fine arts at Oxford in 1997, received MA in book art and PhD in design management from University of the Arts London. Has been involved in design work at Royal Academy of Arts, Christian Aid and Welcome Trust. Creative Director at Google Creative Lab Sydney since 2006. Also a board member of Sydney Biennale.
2. Editions at Play is a project that pursues possibilities of electronic books based on the smartphone at Google Creative Lab Sydney. It published four books in 2016 and in April this year, as its second installment, a Blockchain Book titled A Universe Explodes by Tea Uglow and Seed by Joanna Walsh have been added. 100 users have ownership of the Blockchain Book within the site, but it was revealed that when each person erases two words and adds one word, it becomes difficult to read it as a novel after the 20th person makes an alteration.
3. Lamp (2011) from a project at Google Creative Lab Sydney. An augmented reality wearable computer in the shape of a lamp, developed to freeing the screen from the net. A concept that led to Google Glass unveiled by Google’s X later.
4. A project by Google Creative Lab Sydney and Royal Shakespeare Company in which the spectators participate through digital devices. During the performance of Midsummer Night’s Dreaming, the spectators post Tweet messages and upload videos. The scenes were compiled into an interactive timeline and shared via Google+ (2013).
5. Cube (2014) is displayed on a cubic digital screen. The story unfolds on each of the six sides and the spectator can control them. Uglow was inspired by the experimental film Timecode (2000) where one screen was split into four quadrants during the entire story and attempted this method in digital.
6. The Binoculars (2014) that commemorated the 40th anniversary of the Sydney Opera House fully employed Street View. When you look into the binoculars placed in the streets of Sydney, you can enjoy 360-degree views of sceneries of 40 locations throughout the world including the Palace of Versailles and a base at the South Pole.
7. Ghosts, Toast, and the Things Unsaid (2016) is a theater project with strong experimental elements. Two members of the audience become ghosts and perform with the actors. The voices of their minds are emitted from the smartphones in the costumes to create an overlapping effect with the actors voices. Uglow says, “The digital and theater go well together because they are both temporal.”