Conferences and event reports

“Not publishing” and bio-responsive futures at IfBookThen 2015

Last week I was in Milan as a guest of If Book Then 2015, ostensibly a conference about the future of publishing, but as it turned out, not that at all. In fact, If Book Then was focussed entirely on developing a better sense of ‘situational awareness’ amongst those in the publishing industry. ‘Situational awareness’ is a really useful term in strategic planning that importantly contextualises each strategic play – and British writer/consultant, Simon Wardley, sees it as a critical methodology in these rapid changing times. Thus IBT featured no presenters talking about the ‘state of publishing’ and no presenters even talking about ‘writing books’ or ‘publishing’. Instead every session explored emerging contexts in which media is being created and consumed, and the coming rush of even more radical changes in consumer technologies and experiences.

In the days before IBT I got a taste for the situation in the cultural heritage sector in Northern Italy. On arrival I gave an informal workshop for senior staff at a number of Italian institutions, and then the following day, a lecture at the Academy Brera, to the next generation of students who may end up in these institutions. I was struck by the sense of ‘that couldn’t happen here’ and ‘we’re so far behind’ – and I had to remind both groups that these feelings are universal and not some national trait.

But on to IBT.

A one day event, IBT opened with Peter Brantley from NYPL who spoke about the opportunities of working with reader data – not just around purchasing/borrowing preferences or subject/content classifications – but also of generative storytelling emerging from these preferences. Peter took this further raising the coming tide of sensorial data that is being gathered from our bodies by wearables. Could this sensorial data also be used by a library to align a recommendation with your mood? Or could an author write more effective narratives by understanding the peaks and troughs of emotion throughout a story? And, critically, who will own this data? Given that the concentration of ebook reader data is already held in the hands of a proprietorial few – Amazon, Apple, Google rather than by publishers, authors or readers – how can we ensure that this doesn’t happen with biometrics?

Following after Peter, I spoke about the Pen at Cooper Hewitt, positioning it as a ‘writing’ device inside the museum. Museum visitors, with the Pen, are in control of the narratives they wish to write about their visit. A ‘writable museum?’, as one audience member asked, “but how will they sell exhibition catalogues then?”. Of course the Pen and the new Cooper Hewitt is about a return to a ‘useful collection’ and the museum visit a means to bring that usefulness to the fore in ways other than (but complimentary with) an experience with the collection at home or elsewhere though a screen.

Shifting quickly to commerce, speakers from Lancome, Maxxus and Facebook’s internal agency – the ‘Creative Shop’, presented around storytelling in advertising and the changing patterns of both media production and consumption. Striking in Nico Abruzzese’s (Maxxus) presentation was the appropriation of social justice campaigns by brands (deterring sexual assault in darkened commuter areas of India by deploying branded lighting installations but then evaluating their success purely in terms of brand awareness instead of actual public safety), and Lancome’s investment in making its own media with its customers/fans to reshape and reflect concept of luxury and an imagined Paris (and the burning question of ‘is it product placement if its in your own media?’). Facebook Creative Shop’s efforts to make video that sucks your attention in a ‘stream’ is already a reality for those of you who still use Facebook frequently, but more important was the assertion that where once photograph replaced words, video is fast replacing photograph – despite the relative immaturity of ‘mobile video’ aesthetics.

After lunch, Rosalind Picard from MIT’s Affective Computing Group began by demonstrating computer-based emotion detection with facial detection and analysis using a web application and webcam [go try it!] – highlighting the near-future reality of Brantley’s vision of books that “know how we feel as we read them” (or mueseum exhibitions that track surprise, delight, and concentration levels). In the live demo, appropriately, it was TV advertising that was being “reacted to”. Picard then moved into the story of a wrist-band tracker ( that is able to detect stress and emotional response even more effectively than facial imaging. Fascinating in this story was the way in which the ability to detect and warn of seizures became the key feature after early testing revealed its value for epileptics.

Andrea Onetti from ST MicroElectronics followed. Onetti’s company makes sensors and unsurprisingly his presentation portrayed a future where sensors are omnipresent. None of this is new, but if anyone in the audience was thinking that Brantley, Picard or even my presentations were describing outlier environments, Onetti made it clear that we weren’t. As Danny Bradbury in The Guardian today quotes Usman Haque, “people should be able to set policies governing which devices can talk to the devices that they own, and what information is shared about them”. We as a society need to have some clear discussions about what ubiquitous, omnipresent sensors actually mean for us.

Before Porter Anderson gave a conference wrap, David Passig from Bar-Ilan University was up next presenting somewhat controversial research examining improvements in learning generated through using immersive virtual reality environments and other technologies. Passig’s work was especially interesting when he spoke about tools to allow people to simulate the experiences of toddlers and those with dyslexia – as a means to design better environments, systems, and inclusive learning tools.

And that was that – it was all over in one day with no parallel sessions. I’m already looking forward to next year.