Quite frequently I hear people talking about the future. They will argue and pontificate about when the new digital book, the new digital fiction, the new digital culture will arrive. In the world of digital publishing futurologists abound as we all try and work out what will happen next, even as we are still working out what's just happened. The thing is that digital books and digital fiction and the like are already here. The die is, by and large, cast, and if we are still talking about the future it's either because the new forms so little resemble the old we can't recognise them or they are so familiar as to have slipped under the radar. A couple of examples. A few years ago we had these things in our cars and houses called maps. They were, if you recall, like large books with lots of pictures of how to get from A to B. Often they were quite confusing and the source of many arguments but they pretty much worked. People had a nice sideline in publishing them. Likewise we had these big books known as Encyclopedias, great Enlightenment projects to capture the totality of man kinds knowledge, preferably in expensively produced multi-volume hardback editions.
Now we have Google Maps and sat nav, Wikipedia and, ahem, Google Knols. There is a reasonably obvious equivalence between the products. They resemble one another albeit with crucial evolutionary differences, but perform the same function. The content is roughly the same, the generation of that content and the interface is radically different. The point is no one is talking about what maps and encyclopedias will be like in the future. We know that already.
Yet digital fiction and the book is still surrounded by rampant speculation. However I think all the elements are already here, as with maps and encyclopedias. Firstly we have the ebook. Digital is meant to be good precisely because it breaks with print; however I believe the success of the ebook is because it resembles print. People don't necessarily want a radical break. They want the same but easier.
People like books because they offer a very usable experience that has a USP over other forms of media: it offers the undiluted communication of one mind, one vision with another. If we mess this basic formula too much then reading will not work.
Ah but of course there is another form of digital fiction that has been around for ages, only we don't call it digital fiction. We call it computer games.
Quite why we are still debating what digital fiction looks like when we had games like Zelda years ago, when we have games like GTA IV now, is crazy. There are usually two arguments put against this theory. Firstly that games are not about narrative they are about play. I am not going to get in the whole ludic debate, but I feel this tell only half the story (excuse me). Suffice to say that many games do have a narrative element and this element is central to the overall concept. An analogy I often think of is with songs and lyrics- the tune is like the game play, the lyrics are like the narrative.
The second argument is that the quality of narrative in computer games is so universally and consistently appalling that it can't be compared to literature, an argument I last heard expounded with some force the other week at Bookcamp. Quite what criteria can be used to establish this objectively is not clear. In fact I would say that much of this is down to prejudice as narrative judgements are ultimately subjective statements. Equally the target audience of computer games is the same as that of all action mega hardcore action busting action films (not known for the sophistication of their narratives or dialogue).
Even if we put our hands up and acknowledge that the quality of storytelling in computer games has been lacking then by comparison to the history of the novel we are still at an early stage. Novels written in the mid to late seventeenth century, the form's genesis, read as clumsy, simplistic and contrived in comparison to the well oiled slickness of the modern novel. No doubt games will follow a similar curve over time.
Beyond even games we have already have the outlines of digital fiction. Projects like Inanimate Alice, the story games and ARGs, narrativised blogs and twittered fiction. All the tools and standards are now roughly in place. A wave of innovation has most likely come to a close as the "social media boom" hits the skids. We have been innovation addicts, slavishly jumping on each new trend, application and concept, moving without thinking. The dust is now settling and the landscape for digital fiction and digital books is clear.
To recap, digital books/fiction looks like this:
- ebooks and ebook derivatives
- "writerly" computer games
- stories told used existing forms of social media (blogs etc)
The first and the last are already realities. Pretty much every large publisher has an ebook program; most publishers are now using social media for at least marketing. Both authors, publishers and others are increasingly using social media more creatively. The middle is the most difficult for those involved in books. The big winners maybe authors and agents who can begin to sell rights for game spin offs and/or get involved in the process of conceiving game ideas.
Lets not wait for the future anymore; it arrived in about 2006.