January 27, 2009
The Future of Entertainment is... Paper?

Man, I hate hearing about an awesome conference just after the thing's wrapped up. So it is this week with PaperCamp, which went down in London on January 17th. Here's the description of the event from its own webpage:

What is PaperCamp?
A get-together for a day to talk about, fiddle with, make and explore what's possible with paper based on a blog post (http://magicalnihilism.wordpress.com/2008/10/29/papercamp/) where a lot of people seemed enthusiastic about the idea. PaperCamp is a 'fringe' event to BookCamp, in London's Kings Cross on the 17th January.

What will happen at PaperCamp?
Well, as it's a '___Camp'-type thing, that's largely up to you... we'll have a room, and a grid of timeslots for you to fill with talks, activities, discussions of your making. However, to frame that a little, the original thought behind PaperCamp was 'hacking paper and it's new possibiities'. We do have one thing organised - a 'keynote' if you like from Aaron Straup Cope from a little site called Flickr and more importantly, http://www.aaronland.info/papernet/.

Whether that's looking at material possibilities of paper itself, connecting paper to the internet and vice-versa with things like 2d-barcodes, RFIDs or exotic things like printing with conductive inks... it's about the fact that paper hasn't gone away in the digital age - it's become more useful, more abundant and in some cases gone and got itself bionic superpowers...

As I say - it's up to you what you want to make of it, please bring to the event half-formed thoughts, ideas, projects you've done or anything you would like get others exposed to, or even hacking on. These can take the form of straight-forward talks, or, things you want other people's brains and hands to help with... please bring them... along with Paper, pens, RFIDs, soldering irons, Heidelberg Lithos or any other equipment or materials you will need. We will just provide chairs, tables and a projector...

Even just reading that description, my mind is officially blown – and that's nothing compared to reading Jeremy Keith's liveblogging of the event.

Some highlight quotes:

"Tom Taylor has an awesome analogue mashup. He bought a cheap little till printer, the small dinky kind that is used for printing off shop receipts. As he put it, 'If A4 is a blog, this is Twitter.'"

"We are all seated around a table covered with paper, pens, scissors, tape, stanley knives and other tools. We have fifteen minutes to make either a piece of furniture, a building or an object we love. I don't know what to build so I look up at the ceiling and start trying to build a scale model of it."

"Nick O'Leary is talking about graphs. He wants to represent them with paper rather than simply on paper. He came up with some code that generates an image including lines showing where to fold and cut. Print it out, cut it and fold it and voila!, 3D graphs."

"After lunch, Sascha Pohflepp talks about Export to World. This looks familiar. Ah yes, I remember this being presented as the dinner entertainment during Reboot last year. He's been taking objects out of Second Life and modelling them in the real world."

"Each page of the book contains an image--usually an album cover--and a barcode. If you scan the barcode from a page in the book, the corresponding music will play on your computer (or your phone). The book is the UI."

"James Wheare now gives a quick demo. He's making a daily physical lifestream. Overnight, it pulls in blog entries, Flickr pictures and twitter messages from his friends and in the morning, he prints out a foldable A4 page. He can fold this down into a little booklet to take with him when he leaves the house."

"But what about generating machine-readable identifiers without using a machine? Right now you still need a computer and a printer. What if you could use origami instead? If you think about it, that's what's going on with Edward James Olmos's unicorn in Bladerunner. Take a piece of paper, configure it in a certain way; now it contains a machine-readable message."

"Here's a book called Spot Nocturnal Animals which is all white in the daylight but once it gets dark, you can shine a UV light on the paper to expose animal tracks and information. The Egg Book uses thermochromic ink. When you warm it up--Sawa blows on the page at this point--baby birds are revealed. Here's the missing piece of the papernet puzzle: edibility. Sawa has made edible prints on rice paper: English breakfast, fish'n'chips, soba ...this is making me hungry. She has also created a beautiful box of pictures of Hiroshima with pictures from 1945 burnt onto pictures from 2007."

And there's still more to go, just in Keith's writeup. Start surfing the links there and you find even more deliciously mind-blowing ideas, including moleitau's original napkin-scrawlesque first notes on what the conference could be:

  • way-new printing
  • protospimes
  • ingestion/digestion/representation
  • bionic sketching
  • folding/structure
  • paper's children

Just the word 'protospimes' sends tingles up and down my spine. If the term 'spime' doesn't ring a bell, carve fifteen bucks out of your latte budget and go grab a copy of Bruce Sterling's Shaping Things from Amazon – it's a slim little book that outlines the futurist's view of how to make objects talk to one another. This is what we talk about when we describe the Internet of Things, and is where we're heading with things like Lucent's $50 RFID-for-beginners Tikitag kits (which also happen to be available on Amazon).

Some of this ties into other areas of my recent research, which largely surround the notion of "The Converged Author". I'm looking to explore this in more detail in some upcoming writing projects and conversations (*cough*MiT6*cough*), but I genuinely believe that paper still has a very large role to play in the emerging model of the transmedia storyteller, and as PaperCamp suggests, that may very well extend beyond the simple model of the magnificent beautiful artifact. As Aaron Straup Cope defines the papernet:

The Internet has rightly been called an "architectures of participation". Paper, though, remains the most succesful and robust architecture of shared histories to date.

The prevailing theory that all human endeavour will sooner or later migrate to the online sphere ignores the physical constraints that continue to bind the digital world; both as a risk factor and a barrier to its use.

More importantly : We like "things" -- books, the plastic arts, schwag, otherwise cheap souvenirs that become valued artifacts -- because they afford mystery and the room for an object to adapt to the world around them and not the other way around.

If we imagine human language and computers as two equal and opposing forms of magic -- never able to fully understand one another -- then paper can be seen as a bridge, and the papernet as the API, between the two.

Well said, sir. Well said indeed. Stay tuned for more thoughts on The Converged Author and the future of publishing in upcoming posts.