Will the book be replaced…by the block?

An interesting article over at Rhizome speculates on the future of Blockchain as a disruptive technology within publishing.

What does the verb “to publish” mean in a society where every thought, movement, and moment is recorded and stored?

Let’s say that publishing is the act of making something public and drawing attention to it. And let’s agree that the opposite of public is private. In the past, these two spheres—public and private—were clearly defined and separate. Today, they overlap, merge, and melt together. In the context of traditional publishing, the acts of printing, binding, and distributing a book delineated an unmistakable step from the private to the public sphere. The writer in her room, working on the manuscript, bringing it to the publishing house, and so on down the production line. In contrast, many current info-tools work in a gray zone in between, obfuscating where data ends up and how it is exploited.

Today, it is clear that the categories “private” and “public” need to be redefined in order to give the user the choice of where on this private/public spectrum she is communicating. Is the message meant for one person? Or for the community of all intelligent lifeforms? Should it expire after five minutes? Or persist until the last bits of information succumb to entropy?

The block exist on the extreme point of both the private/public and the temporary/permanent scale: a block is absolutely public and permanent. An inscription in stone.

The full article falls a little bit into the hype cycle and is rather overstuffed with jargon, but taken in all it’s articulating exactly the issue that I believe many of us are coming to understand. On the one hand, publishing has already been irrevocably and terminally disrupted by digital technology. It’s only a matter of how long that disruption ultimately takes to play out. To paraphrase William Gibson, the publishing industry is already dead, it’s just unevenly distributed. On the other, the new model that has emerged is…well…ebooks basically suck, and Amazon is almost the shittiest imaginable ebook library. A wholly corporate owned knowledge silo, where every text is locked down by private owners and can’t even be effectively searched, with the whole thing literally flooded with junk ebooks attempting to game the system.

Can Blockchain provide a better solution? In short, yes. Whether it will is about whether the vested interests in the writing and publishing world can see to making it happen. But however it plays out, I suspect we’re nearing the point of letting go of the “book” as the central concept of publishing, especially in non-fiction. Knowledge is now far more modular. If I want to, for instance, lear to use Adobe Illustrator (which I’m currently doing) I don’t buy a book. A make thousands of Google searches and read hundreds of blog posts, as and when I need to answer specific problems. That’s the new landscape of knowledge and learning, and the offer of Blockchain is that it will provide an effective reward and incentive system, possibly through micro-payments, for writers toiling in that landscape.

Read my short essay on Blockchain and book piracy.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

2 thoughts on “Will the book be replaced…by the block?

  1. hm. Not sure the lack of typography or images would go down well with many who’d wish to publish. though there are established technical ways around it (markdown for text, base64 encoding of images/media) that reader/viewer software could choose or not to render, it seems contrary to the spirit they have in mind. But could it gain acceptance without it? Or could they police it?


    1. Well, the ebook is basically the worst possible format in that regard. A crippled html file that can’t even reliable centre an image. Blocks would be txt, but then allow the reader to fashion their own formatting.




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