Everything you wanted to know…

The following is a short article on Book Sprints created for the Frankfurt Book Fair by Dr D M Berry ( Senior Lecturer in Digital Media at Swansea University) and Michael Dieter (lecturer in New Media at the University of Amsterdam).

Book Sprinting

– David M. Berry and Michael Dieter

Writing and publishing a book in four days is insane. Not only is it ambitious in the extreme, but it is challenging both on an intellectual and practical level. Indeed, it would be an alarming proposition, perhaps even considered suspect for intellectuals writing today. This is why a ‘book sprint’ – writing a book within a number of days in a collective rapid prototyping fashion using collaborative software, good ideas, and copious amounts of coffee – is such a rarity within the traditional walls of publishing and academe. In this sense, the very notion of a book sprint might be greeted with understandable incredulity and dismissal. It is worth noting, however, that such apprehensions speak not only to debates over the privileged status of ‘the book’ as a cultural artifact, but are expressive of the conflicts and uncertainties that characterize media convergence. In this respect, we believe that book sprints need to be read critically and materially to grasp the productive genre of textual practice they entail. But more than that, we think they have something positive to contribute to academic and publishing practices in allowing the genre of the ‘flash’ book, written under a short timeframe, to emerge as a contributor to debates, ideas and practices in contemporary culture. Indeed, one might think of book sprints as interventions that go well beyond a well-written blog-post or tweet, and give some substantive weight to a discussion or issue – and here we are thinking within a range of 20-40,000 words.

We speak from the experience of a recent book sprint in which we were participants with a total of eight people, seven authors and one facilitator. Over four days we had to conceptualise, structure, write and edit a book as part of a project organised by the V2 Institute, in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. This book, New Aesthetic, New Anxieties, was proposed to discuss the recent emergence of a concept called the ‘New Aesthetic’ and as an internet based phenomena the notion of rapidly writing a piece of work to contribute to a live and developing debate. In this we were successful, producing something that took us all by surprise both in terms of its ambition and the quality of the final production – and which included the all important ISBN as a final stamp of authenticity. More than that, the book was ‘published’ using software that could auto-generate multiple versions, pdf, ebook, mobi, etc. This meant that dissemination and distribution across the internet took place almost immediately after editing and proofing – and by immediately we mean just that – within minutes the book was being downloaded and read across the globe. To authors versed in the traditional practices of book production, where six months is considered a fast turn-around, this was remarkable.

Of course, ‘speed up’ or ‘slow down’ is a central dilemma of our intellectual labour today. To start sprinting, however, would seem to pursue the extreme accelerated aspects of this condition and support, for instance, an auditing culture of maximised instrumentalised output. But book sprinting does not necessarily figure as an endorsement of quantity over quality. There is a real sense that sped up approaches with limits allows for an effective approach for grappling with the pressures of informationalism in a collaborative, bounded and technical forms of work. Indeed, we would see book sprinting as a complementary form of publication to existing practices, rather than an outright replacement. As a set of techniques, this would therefore be especially well suited for rapid, but organized interventions into urgent and key topics unfolding in network cultures.

Collaborative writing is always an experimental organization of creative labor. It involves the invention of new ways of working, some of which can be challenging to authors who not only tend to write alone, but are required to forego many of the intellectual and publishing assumptions of authorial voice and authenticity. These new formations, exemplified here by book sprints, take on new engagements within the current economy of computational knowledge. Interestingly, unlike blogging or social media practices, sprinting relies on physical proximity and clear milestones – this is a very intense form of knowledge work more akin to a team-based project than a normal writing experience. Given the transformations in time and space that often accompany new media, we certainly believe that there is a need for such other settings for critical reflection to take place and sustainable creative networks to be maintained. Of course, conflicting perspectives, antagonisms and miscommunication will always be an aspect of any collaboration, but the strength of immediacy for working through differences in collectives should not be underestimated. It is then remarkable that book sprinting re-invents the closeness of the scholarly community, the writers group, or the authors circle, bringing people together, literally, in a space designed to facilitate both intellectual cross-fertilisation of ideas, but more importantly, a space to write and think. For us, it was fascinating to see how book sprinting practices, like the ‘writing tables’ were always debating spaces as well as zones of text production – silent contemplation was always encouraged away from group activities, whether in other rooms or distant coffee shops. Remarkably, this was a very effective means of working and writing.

In crucial ways, we think that sprinting explicitly highlights what we might call the fundamental technicity of the humanities. That is, the humanities are not just the product of atomised individual authors, but require the use of complex technological apparatuses – the library, the archive, the word processor, the book – as well as particular social ontologies. In the book sprint, it is fair to say that shared resources, tools, techniques, skills and new social ontologies are reconfigured in tangible, risky and dialogical ways. The process, in this respect, involves a shared context for the development of embodied knowledge or know-how. Academics are highly trained, but we rarely work together – and even when we do, it is unlikely we would write together, literally in the same room, at the same table. Today, the work of the humanities is assessed as formally equivalent to science, technology, engineering or mathematics, being able to articulate and innovate with the affordances of these technicities becomes crucial. This, we believe, requires an ability to elaborate, explore and support such experiments through new collective and open expression.

Being involved in a book sprint inevitably leads us to question what is the role of written style for critical knowledge today? Indeed, conceptual and theoretical work in the recent humanities has notoriously been characterized by tortured, opaque or simply ‘difficult’ modes of writing. These kinds of theoretical styles are often met with accusations of elitism or deception – however, we believe that it is crucial to recognize how writing practice itself can become an act of resistance and, therefore, a critical moment. What stylistics might be elaborated in the collaborative writing of a book sprint? The challenges of informational culture seemingly require these new modes of collective address, both as content and form – together with new social ontologies that bring together disparate authors from multiple disciplinary backgrounds and enable them to work together effectively.

Nonetheless, we do not believe that book sprints in their current form, should be naively celebrated as an expression of the spontaneous vitality of free network culture. Labour is expended, planning is required, software development and upkeep is a necessity, and funding is required for participants and facilitators – indeed, there is a political economy to book sprints that needs to be kept in focus, and as part of this institutional support is crucial. In this respect, book sprinting highlights the constitutive problems of establishing and sustaining a commons as a shared space which can be contributed to and freely shared. That such a set of practices has arisen from FLOSS Manuals and the production of open knowledge for underdeveloped countries is inspiring and important as situated practices that contest proprietary knowledge production. While the format is, of course, not reducible to these contexts, there currently remains a material precariousness to these domains and, moreover, a politics integral to their production. After having been involved in a book sprint, we believe that there is an important set of cultural and material practices being enacted which we believe are crucial as an alternative to proprietary and instrumentalist practices that have become so prevalent today. But more than that, the process itself is intellectual challenging, exciting and fun – and as an opportunity to create new ideas, write and publish a book, you have nothing to lose but your preconceptions.

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