"A smartphone is not a neutral carrier of story": lessons from the Ambient Literature project

"A smartphone is not a neutral carrier of story": lessons from the Ambient Literature project

As we approach the final months of the Ambient Literature project, the whole team find ourselves facing in two directions. We’re putting on a series of final events (more on which below), but are also spending our time drawing out conclusions and reflections regarding the last two years of work.

When we began in May 2016, we were upfront about the challenges of the work we were going to make and address. Here’s what I said at the launch event at Hachette’s (then shiny new) headquarters in Blackfriars:

Here’s an admission at the start of a research programme.

We don’t know what Ambient Literature is.

We’ve started to map the territory, to define by identifying borders and by testing the edges. It’s important to note though, that we don’t want to reduce the idea to something tight and defined, rather our intention is to open it up, so show by doing, making and thinking. We do know that Ambient Literature asks for writing to be specific, to be for this form. That there are rules, grammars of making and thinking about readers and texts in new ways.

Twenty three months later, I think we know what this is, and we’ve made progress toward a set of rules and grammars for making work in this form. Each of our three commissioned works - Duncan Speakman’s It Must Have Been Dark By Then (in collaboration with Calvium), James Attlee’s The Cartographer’s Confession (also with Calvium) and Kate Pullinger’s Breathe (made with Editions at Play) tell us different things about those grammars.

We know that temporality can become a significant factor within a work that asks for your participation in a literary experience - time becomes the equivalent of a word or page count, and furthermore, suggests that these works are composed, as much as they are written. Our readers move through them, from beginning to end, and the stories they are being told are curated for them along the way. Our audience for It Must Have Been Dark By Then described how the work created a personal, invisible, ethereal sound sculpture across the city.

There are specificities in the way language works here too. The authorial address of The Cartographer’s Confession, in which an unreliable narratorial voice from thirty years ago merges with the city around you in 2018 has specific registers, ways of linking place to voice to personal experience. That the ghosts in Breathe break down the fourth wall of the reading experience is a particularly subtle use of API data, designed to unnerve each reader. Each of these works (and our smaller experiments) have a sense of the uncanny about them, in that ’the presence of what ought to be absent’ is common to each of them. They’re not all ghost stories though, rather the uncanny is a technological haunting; the phone we all take for granted imparting story in a way that is determined by your presence within the work, by where you are, or how you relate to the world around you.

The Cartographer's Confession from DCRC on Vimeo.

We’ve learned some lessons too. One question we consistently asked our writers was ‘what role does the phone have?’. A smartphone is not a neutral carrier of story in the way a printed book is (and that argument can be unpacked further, but I don’t have the space here), but rather there’s a danger it interrupts the story. We had good answers each time (it provides a sonic and geolocated way of navigating an accompanying printed text, or it’s a carrier for data, or it stands in for a ‘book’), but this remains, for me, a partially unresolved question within a larger, emerging genre of work.

The scale of a work is something that needs careful attention too. Longer Ambient works are possible, but a reader’s experience needs careful curation in order that they’re satisfied at every stage.

Finally, we learned a lesson, albeit an unresolved one, about the title of the project itself. Ambient Literature connotes the literary, deliberately, but might exclude audiences for whom the idea of 'literary' is off-putting. It’s still a good title, but it might not be the best way to describe these stories.

If you’re interested in opening up this conversation (and we are), then our final Showcase Festival is taking place on April 23rd at the British Library. We’ll be celebrating the end of the project, sharing our secrets and discoveries, and letting you look behind the scenes of how these projects are created.

The event will feature a number of workshops and talks, as well as a guided tour through the London of The Cartographer’s Confession with its author James Attlee and producer Emma Whittaker. We’re aiming the event at publishing industry professionals, students and practitioners, as well as anyone interested in the future of reading and writing - and I can promise at the very least you’ll come away knowing something new about digital storytelling.

We’re also taking the whole project to the Hay Festival in May. We’re running workshops, hosting a panel discussion (with guests including Dan Franklin and Joanna Walsh) and are writing a new piece of work - Words We Never Wrote - specially for Hay. It premieres at the Festival and explores the meaning of writing, language and storytelling. We’re delighted to be at Hay and, if you wanted to join us, can promise you a little bit of magic when you visit.