What do you buy, when you buy a digital book?
Not an object, but access. Most digital things, such as apps and games and platforms, sell access, not ownership. That's the way streaming works. It's the basis of the rental economy. You may feel like you 'own' your ebooks, but if Amazon goes into administation, your Kindle library disappears.
So - do you care?
As a reader, do you find it frustrating not being able to share, lend and display what you've paid for? As an author, are you afraid that your creative projects will vanish into the digital ether, leaving you with an 'invisible career'? As a publisher, are you fed up of being dependent on third-party marketplaces with tiny margins and unscrupulous terms? As a bookseller, are you concerned that you're soon to become obsolete?
Or are you perfectly happy to sometimes buy physical stuff, and sometimes rent digital stuff, and get the advantages of both?
The complex issue of digital ownership underpins the latest project from Editions at Play, the joint initiative from Google Creative Labs and Visual Editions set up to explore books "which make use of the dynamic properties of the web".
A Universe Explodes is a 20-page 'Blockchain book' written by Google employee Tea Uglow and owned by one hundred people. On receipt of their book - essentially a unique link to a mobile-optmised website - each owner is required to become an editor, removing two words on each page and adding one, then dedicate the finished result to a friend. Each owner's name and changes are then stored using Blockchain, and their version of the book is saved as a unique 'Cultureblock'. As each Cultureblock passes on through digital hands, it shrinks with each successive reader/editor, until eventually there is a version where only one word remains on each page - although only the original hundred Cultureblocks are permanently stored and owned, and remain freely available to read on the master site.
As Uglow says in her Medium blog on the project, "we feel there is a significance and meaning to traditional ideas of ‘owning’ that we might want to think about before we lose our understanding of what that traditionally meant." Her team's breakthrough came in realising that Blockchain technology would allow a book to simultaneously offer both access and ownership, with the history of the hands it had passed through being stored permanently and transparently online "like a very detailed library card".
As an intellectual and philosophical experiment, it is rich and provoking. As an experience, it is a total mindfuck. Uglow's story is clever, moving, timely and well-written, but there can be few things more frustrating than tinkering with someone else's already minimal and fragmented words, insecure in the knowledge that your editorial decisions will be recorded and exposed to the world. And the social dynamic at work - Are you a priviledged owner, or just a plebeian reader? Whose Cultureblock is the best? What will Tea think? Who should you dedicate yours to? - inspires the worst kind of playground politics and self-consciousness.
This is, in my experience, a not uncommon result of experimental digital books. You're very glad someone else bothered to make them, but you sure as hell don't want to experience them more than once. And all too often they seem to be agonising over a 'problem' that no-one else really feels. If I want the tactility, shareability and permanence of ownership, I'll buy a physical book. If I want the exhilaration, interactivity and community of a digital experience, I'll buy a digital one. Nary an existential crisis in sight.
Would it be so bad to accept that, just as every medium offers unique opportunities, it also has in-built limitations? That as readers and writers we might be perfectly happy go to one format for ownership, and another for pure experience?
If you're a disciple of the singularity who believes that the physical world is about to evaporate, then you might well strive to recreate all the properties of physical culture online. But I'm not, and I'm so sure we're about to "lose our understanding of what [ownership] traditionally meant." Owning things is still great, right? And renting things is great, too? I thought we'd all got over the either/or digital/physical thing.
Look, don't get me wrong - I think A Universe Explodes is a valuable and intriguing experiment. It's just not very enjoyable, either as an object or an experience, which makes it an uninspiring book.