Container-less Content? Not in This Digital Age.
The publishing industry is not unique in being disrupted by the digital revolution. However, as much as or more than any enterprise out there, publishers are being challenged to reevaluate and reinvent the very core of what they do and how they do it. We find ourselves questioning what a book is, what content is, and what shape authored work will take five years from now.
Published in October of 2013, The Content Machine explores the publishing industry in crisis, disrupted by digital innovations, yet continuing to adapt. Written by Michael Bhaskar, digital publishing director at Profile Books, The Content Machine outlines a theory of publishing that allows publishers "to focus on their core competencies in difficult times while building a broader notion of what they are capable of." Exploring the nature of content, Bhaskar combines historical perspective and communication theory to make the case that the publishing industry will indeed survive and thrive in the digital age.
Among the ideas Bhaskar advances is a reevaluation of how content and what we typically call platforms relate to each other. While it may appear that digital technology has freed content from it's former containers (printed pages), content must still be contained in some fashion.
Likewise, it's important to recognize how content can be "decoupled" from its medium. Bhaskar toys with the notion that content is distinct from its medium, yet maintains a "formative relationship" with its medium. Bhaskar's term for content containers is "frames," chosen to better reflect how the content and platform relate. It's also an attempt to better understand content as we shift to a digital environment and emphasize the importance of cultural and technological context.
Admittedly, this is more academic territory than Book Business typically gets into, but we think it's an important insight and a worthy thought exercise regarding the nature of content as our "frames" evolve. Following is an excerpt from Chapter 3 "How Content Works" of The Content Machine.
My term for content containers is frame. Frames are as much about presenting content as containing it. Frames in my language are distribution mechanisms, channels, and media. They are contexts, modes of understanding as much as duplicative technologies. Frames are not just delivery systems or packages for content but content's experiential mode. They aren't dumb pipes. The book-as-container is a useful but flawed metaphor because it cannot encompass all forms of bibliographic, let alone cultural, experience. It fails to recognize containers are digital as well as physical.
We never find pure, unmediated content as it's always framed in some way. There is always a system for distribution. Moreover we never come to content without certain preconceptions and expectations coloring our consumption. In other words we don't encounter content immanently -- we encounter frame-content pairs. Typically the frame for long-form written content was the book. That is, a combination of paper, printing technology, ink, text, artwork, economic value, and social status which collectively provide a frame for long-form writing. But it needn't always be the book, which is now merely one frame among many. Looked at this way, the significance for publishing starts to become clear. Publishers are not just producers of books but constructors of frames.
(To be clear, the language of frames and framing isn't new. The sociologist Erving Goffman speaks of frames; the MIT artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky likewise developed a theory of frames, as have cognitive linguists, book historians, cultural theorists, and media analysts.)
First, how do frames encompass the transition to digital? It's easy to imagine that ideas of containers are irrelevant in digital technology. However, digital technology itself comprises a delivery mechanism for content still subject to certain constraints -- that is, forms of delivery -- that comprise a large portion of its frame. Think of the screen. Digital content cannot be accessed 'directly', but is displayed on a screen. Whether E Ink, touchscreens, a projection on a wall, or simply a PC monitor, just as books typically have pages so digital technology has the screen as the primary unit of delivery and display. Screens frame content.
Beyond this lay other sub-frames, notably specific encodings from basic HTML to high-level coding languages and the binary code on which all digital technologies rely. Both screens and code rely on a physical infrastructure of fiber-optic cables, transistors, electricity, LEDs, and so on. All of these frames condition digital content. It is no less mediated or framed than a book or broadsheet newspaper. Far from being totally unbound, all digital content comes in a series of interlocking frames: hardware; screens and display mechanisms; mark-up languages; computer code. Screens and code don't contain or distribute content -- they frame it, just as books frame content and in so doing enable distribution (in distributing the frame, you distribute the content).
Frames & the Oxford English Dictionary
Frames are not a static concept. They are malleable and pragmatic, crossing cultural and technological boundaries, as applicable to iPhone games as ancient sagas on fragile papyrus. Where we wouldn't speak of the iPhone as the container for a game, we could call it a frame.
As an example of framing take one of the greatest feats in publishing, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). First published in 1928 after seventy years of labor, the first edition's statistics are staggering: 15,490 pages; 414,825 words; 1,827,306 illustrative examples selected from five million suggestions; 227,779,589 letters and numbers; 178 miles of type in 10 enormous morocco clad volumes. Clearly the OED wasn't just another book, another delivery system, but a scholarly monster in need of taming, a sprawling near unframeable enterprise.
Yet there are several levels of frame here. At the most basic, those 10 volumes act as a frame for the dictionary. At a somewhat meta-level, the goal of the OED is to be a definitive frame for the English language. And the history of the OED's composition reveals further frames at work, up to the point where the chief executive of Oxford University Press (OUP) can state there may never again be a complete print edition, something previously unthinkable.
Originally growing out of the Philological Society, the project passed through the hands of several editors before a polymathic schoolteacher, James Murray, took it on. The OED needed special methodologies to achieve the comprehensiveness of its end goal, a total survey of English. Simon Winchester, author of The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, describes the system created by an earlier editor, Herbert Coleridge, who invented a standardized means of organizing words through a system of quotation slips. This was the dictionary's basis. He also built a series of pigeon holes for holding the inchoate dictionary with a capacity of 60,000 to 100,000 slips.
A rebuilt set was 40 times larger and was still inadequate for the sprawling work in progress. James Murray called the room housing this vast assemblage of pigeon holes, slips, and lexicographic effort "the Scriptorium." In a sense the Scriptorium embodied the OED, known as the New English Dictionary until 1895. If we can say a book is as much an "information architecture" as an object, then the sequence of stapled slips, scrawled definitions, folders, and pigeon holes is such an information architecture, literally, for the dictionary.
Marshaling sufficient resources for such an organizational and scholarly endeavor wasn't easy. The Delegates of Oxford University Press, as its governing board is known, had originally budgeted £9,000 for completion. Relatively early it became evident the OED was intensely cash hungry and in the end it would consume some £300,000 of the press's money. One way of relieving the burden was to release small, lightly bound sections of the dictionary -- fascicles -- which could later be bound into a complete edition. The frame here is very different from the finished object; cheaper, smaller, bittier. However, through the fascicles the difficult process of typesetting and layout design was accomplished, all of which provides a sub-frame for the content or what you see on a page (incidentally setting the standard for dictionaries to come).
Slips, fascicles, and finally august tomes are all alternative frames for the dictionary. A project as protracted and sprawling as the OED required framing in different ways for different times with different purposes. Those volumes published in 1928 were certainly designed to reflect the achievement of Murray, his team, and their successors. However, even then different editions were on offer -- you could get half volumes with different bindings, as well as the "main" edition. But, of course, a living language is impossible to frame. English is fluid, rendering the dictionary immediately outdated. The First Supplement to the OED appeared only five years after publication. What had once looked like a complete container suddenly had appendages.
By the 1980s, it was clear a new breakthrough in managing lexicographic data was needed. With help from IBM, the Second Edition OED was revolutionized. Torn apart, rekeyed, converted into code, it was eventually printed and published to much fanfare in 1989. Again the scale is vast -- 20 volumes, 615,100 entries, those definitions illustrated with some 2,436,600 quotations over 21,370 pages, using 59,000,000 words and no less than 63 kilograms of paper.
Enabled by the digitization of the OED's production process, this was an order of magnitude bigger than before. This digitization may have liberated it from print strictures, but simply provided a new (more flexible) frame for the book, which in 1989 was reframed back into print. Since 2000, however, the OED has been available online, updated every three months.
The OED today is a database, not a book or set of books, or series of sheaves, or even mass of slips. That it is a database means it has simply been reframed by screens, code, database software, information management tools, server stacks, monitors -- but not that it's unleashed from framing altogether. In its monumental journey the OED has a constantly evolving set of distribution mechanisms, best understood as overlapping methods of framing the content. Each one articulates the OED in a subtly different way, emphasizing a certain performative aspect of framing. Each acts as a "container" for the dictionary, although the language of the container hardly helps us see the Scriptorium and the database on a continuum with each other and those handsome volumes gathering dust on library shelves.
Frames span digital and analogue, piles of loose paper and bound books, CDs and sheet music, postcards and Picassos, MySQL databases and physical storage. Just as publishers choose frames in terms of demy hardbacks, B-format paperbacks, cover art, page design, typesetting, and typography they might also chose frames in terms of iOS or Android builds, interface design, and rendering quality. Frames allow us to view digital and analogue media on a spectrum rather than unbridgeable islands, to see how not only do highly divergent forms of published material all require delivery systems but how those systems present works in differing ways.
Frames have a presentational or performative aspect to them; they don't just deliver a work but deliver it in a certain way. The OED, finely bound, proudly embossed with the great golden crest of OUP, sporting huge page cuts, makes a statement about what the OED is and does. This presentational quality is part of why we can talk of frames as object nonspecific, essentially a presentational mode as well as a medium.
Frames as distribution systems -- like books or MP3 files and players -- gesture toward the ways in which frames and content are mutually involved yet also distinct. Frames condition content and vice versa. Novels and books have typically been a prescribed length because it was convenient for the codex, amenable to realistic print runs and hence economical, all of which is to say, the set of possible frames dictates what is possible for content. Equally, content looks for new frames. Content creators don't passively wait for frames to evolve -- they make it happen.
Related story: Combating the Higher-Ed Used Book Market