It’s only been over the last couple of years that blockchain, the tracking technology invented for the safe exchange of Bitcoin, has made a use-case for itself outside of the financial market. Interestingly, the art world is leading the charge: We’ve seen applications of blockchain that would make sure images on the internet are properly attributed, and allow artists retain an equity stake in their work.
Now, the ever-inventive online publishing initiative Editions At Play—a collaboration between Google and the London-based book publishers Visual Editions—is applying blockchain technology to e-books with a new novel, titled A Universe Explodes, written by Google Creative Lab Sydney creative director Tea Uglow and created in collaboration with the design and engineering agency Impossible. Thanks to blockchain technology, the book can be “owned” and borrowed like a physical book, while still being readable by all.
Bitcoin blockchains are used to track transactions securely and transparently in an unalterable database that can be accessed publicly. Blockchains cryptographically tag each Bitcoin exchange to the person who made it, creating an automatic backlog of activity that never gets erased.
In the case of A Universe Explodes, the “transactions” are basically each act of lending out the book. The novel has 100 own-able copies, which can be passed from one reader to the next by dedicating the copy to an individual in the acknowledgments. As with all Editions At Play books, it can also be read online or on mobile by anyone, but only the owners can edit the book and pass it along. Think of it like the digital version of dog-earing a page or underlining a particular phrase, then lending your copy to a friend with a bad track record of returning.
At its essence, the book has a similar goal to other cultural uses of blockchain: It is an experiment in whether we can still have provenance or ownership over a digital object without limiting access to it. Yet unlike the more transactional uses of blockchain, this use is more concerned with how the book will be used and owned in the future, rather than with attributing it to a single owner, or creator, in the past.
“So far the examples [of blockchain technology] we’ve seen have been more focused on blockchains transactional quality,” says Uglow. “It’s seen as a defensive mechanism stretching backwards to create a chain of supply, or distribution, so that you might have ethical goods, or creative matter, or simply a transparent exchange of services. All of which is great, but this is more about the future of the object, beginning with the idea of ownership of non-tangible goods. It is the idea that we can use it to give someone something that they own—separate from people’s ability to access or use something.”
A Universe Explodes is conceptual at its core—it’s a performance that plays with our distinction between physical and digital, ownership and access. The text itself morphs and disintegrates over time with each read. Once a book is dedicated to you, it arrives in link form in an email. You’re prompted to swipe to the first page (it’s best read on mobile), where you’re instructed to add one word, then delete two—directions that are repeated on each of the book’s 20 pages. The book starts out with 128 words on the page but shrinks with every edit until, eventually, with 128 users, there will be just one word on every page.
Only once you dedicate the book to someone else and send it on its way is your information added to the metadata tracked by blockchain. The copies are being passed around now by willing participants, with the idea that they will stop when each page only has one word.
In this way, the book mimics the typical editorial process between editor and author, making that process transparent for all. Uglow kept this format in mind as she wrote the book, and tried to make the text easily manipulatable so that the ending could be altered, or the tension in the narrative heightened. The narrator’s gender is only alluded to once in the beginning, so that can be changed in one word. “I like entering into a long-distance non-temporal relationship with my reader-editors, it is like flirting, it feels kinda sexy,” she says. “But again, it is just to tease, it’s not the point of the project.”
The point of the project is to use this new technology to marry the best qualities of a digital book—openly accessible, readable on the go—with the feeling of ownership and traditions of lending that are inherent only in a physical book. It speaks to a strange cultural purgatory that readers and book publishers have found themselves in, stuck between the advent and widespread ubiquity of digital books and a stubborn preference for physical books. According to a Pew Research Center survey last year, over twice as many Americans read books in print over e-readers or audio.
Even at Editions At Play, where the team leverages its fluency in new technology to create e-books that are clever, interactive, and engaging in ways physical books couldn’t be, there’s still the sense that digital will never fully replace physical in the reading world. “I carry a book with me all the time, and I felt very strongly after a year of reading only e-books, in preparation for editionsatplay.com, that I had lost a connection to them once they were read,” says Uglow. “When I talk about that I say ‘I had lost touch with them,’ which is literally the truth. When I found myself buying the physical book so that it could exist in my life I kind of thought it was worth exploring…. It asks an interesting question: Is this an unforeseen strength of the physical form or a weakness in the digital to convey emotional or financial ‘ownership’?”
A Universe Explodes is an attempt to answer, or at least explore that question. It’s also an attempt to deepen the relationship between a reader and a digital book, to see if it’s possible to make the same emotional investment—to feel a sense of ownership and connection, and to have the impulse to lend and borrow—that many do with physical books. And while Uglow admits that the experimental quality and format of the book doesn’t make it directly applicable to the publishing industry at large, it does lead to interesting possibilities. If nothing else, it’s an accessible way to think about a complicated technology like blockchain—especially for the literary type.