Landing : Athabascau University

A Universe Explodes: A Blockchain Book, from Editions At Play

A Universe Explodes A really nice project from the Editions at Play team at Google, in which blockchain is used both to limit supply to a digital book (only 100 copies made) and, as the book is passed on, to make it 'age,' in the sense that each reader must remove two words from each page and add one of their own before passing it on (that they are obliged to do). Eventually, it decays to the point of being useless, though I think the transitional phases might be very interesting in their own right.

I was thinking something very vaguely along these lines would be an interesting idea and had started making notes about how it would work, but it seemed so blindingly obvious that somebody must have already done it. Blockchain technologies for publishing are certainly being considered by many people, and some are being implemented.   The Alliance of Independent Authors seems to have the most practical plans for using Blockchain for that purpose. Another similar idea comes with the means to partially compensate publishers for such things (as though they needed even more undeserved profits). Another interesting idea is to use Blockchain Counterparty tokens to replace ISBN numbers. However, A Universe Explodes is the only example I have so far found of building in intentional decay. It's one of a range of wonderfully inventive and inspiring books that could only possibly exist in digital media at the brilliant Editions at Play site.

Though use of Blockchain for publishing is a no-brainer, it's the decay part that I like most, and that I was thinking about before finding this. Removing and adding words is not an accurate representation of the typical decay of a physical book, and it is not super-practical at a large scale, delightful though it is. My first thoughts were, in a pedestrian way, to build in a more authentic kind of decay. It might, for instance, be possible to simply overlay a few more pixels with each reading, or to incrementally grey-out or otherwise visually degrade the text (which might have some cognitive benefits too, as it happens). That relies, however, on a closed application system, or a representation that would be a bit inflexible (e.g. a vector format like SVG to represent the text, or even a bitmap) otherwise it would be too easy to remove such additions simply by using a different application. And, of course, it would be bad for people with a range of disabilities, although I guess you could perform similar mutilations of other representations of the text just as easily. That said, it could be made to work. There's no way it is even close to being as good as making something free of DRM, of course, but it's a refinement that might be acceptable to greedy publishers that would at least allow us to lend, give, or sell books that we have purchased to others.

My next thought was that you could, perhaps more easily and certainly more interestingly, make marginalia (graphics and text) a permanent feature of the text once ownership was transferred, which would be both annoying and enlightening, as it is in physical books. One advantage would be that it reifies the concept of ownership - the intentional marks made on the book are a truer indication of the chain of owners than anything more abstract or computer-generated. It could also be a really interesting and useful way to tread a slightly more open path than most ugly DRM implementations, inasmuch as it could allow the creation of deliberately annotated editions (with practical or artistic intent) without the need for publisher permission. That would be good for textbooks, and might open up big untapped markets: for instance, I'd quite often rather buy an ebook annotated by one of my favourite authors or artists than the original, even if it cost more. It could be interestingly subversive, too. I might even purchase one of Trump's books if it were annotated (and re-sold) by journalists from the Washington Post or Michael Moore, for example. And it could make a nice gift to someone to provide a personally embellished version of a text. Combined with the more prosaic visual decay approach, this could become a conversation between annotators and, eventually, become a digital palimpsest in which the original text all but disappears under generations of annotation. I expect someone has already thought of that but, if not, maybe this post can be used to stop someone profiting from it with a patent claim.

In passing, while searching, I also came across which is both cunning and evil: it lets publishers embed Bitcoin bounties in ebooks that 'pirates' can claim and, in the process, alert the publisher to the identity of the person responsible. Ugly, but very ingenious. As the creators claim, it turns pirates on other pirates by offering incentives, yet keeping the whole process completely anonymous. Eeugh. 


  • Steve Swettenham December 3, 2017 - 3:31am

    Your perspective on blockchains is very interesting, in particular the distributed nature of the digital tech.  I am wondering how crypto-washing of money and information will affect bandwidth and the actual environment where the network energy is being exploited? How can blockchains efficiently (CPU) track open e-book versions and associated layered information (i.e., annotations)? Would an open DNA/GPS content tagging standard be more efficient on the network?

    PS. Blockchain crypto-stratedgy seems like a game of trivial pursuit on implosion, while the actual world is exploding.

  • Jon Dron December 3, 2017 - 12:33pm

    I don't think blockchain will be useful in tracking as such - quite the opposite. Even the evil Erudition Digital approach relies on different mechanisms to perform its dirtier deeds. The big idea is that it makes it possible to wrap up other tools and standards (including those to implement intentional decay) fairly robustly without requiring a central server or authority, without (necessarily) disrupting the traditional economics of publication, including the rights of buyers to resell, gift, or mutilate their purchases.

    In my scenario, blockchain doesn't have to eat power to quite the extent that it does in Bitcoin because it is only used to manage a single, indivisible (transferable) resource a finite - and usually low - number of times. A book is not like a currency: there is no profit to be made for end users from mining new books. At a wild guess, I suspect that the environmental impact would be significantly lower than that of traditional books, averaged out over time, once you factor in transportation and storage costs as well as the more obvious embodied energy costs of deforestation and production. It might even be not much higher (and possibly lower) than the current centralized approach, which still consumes quite a bit of bandwidth, storage, and processing power, not to mention sustaining armies of managers of such systems, with all the associated costs involved.

    And yes, ideally, books would all be open and we could use tools (that already exist in most ebook standards) to add glosses or whatever metadata we liked. Right now, a 'purchase' of a DRM-encumbered ebook is no more than a provisional rental, with the added burden that sellers can arbitrarily choose to disable our access to it at any time as, most famously, Amazon did to readers of 1984. Combined with the ability of publishers to impose a range of conditions on how long we can read it, where we read it, on what device we read it, and so on, not to mention their creepy ability to track what, how, when, and where we read, it's a raw deal for consumers. In return we get very little: mainly, the potential to receive updates and, what a blockchain-based approach would give us for free, the ability to annotate and share annotations. All of this is available from DRM-free works such as those published by Tor or O'Reilly, (or, for that matter AU Press) that are thriving without such ugliness, so the added constraints are the result of pure greed, not business necessity. That said, in the near future, it is unlikely that we are going to stop most publishers from jealously protecting their wares with DRM (though it could happen: the music industry has, with reluctance and huge caveats, mostly reversed course on that). Although it would, if done well, prevent them from exploiting the technologies in new ways to make even more money, using blockchain with DRM and a decay mechanism would still allow publishers to make money the same way that they have always done, and for people to actually own the books they buy.