Meet the writers pushing literature into the smartphone age
by Thomas McMullan
The Ambient Literature project is pulling from podcasts and Pokémon Go to make a new type of book
“Literature has always found spaces to exist,” the writer James Attlee tells me. “It existed before books were here and it will exist after books are here.” He taps the table. “We’ve just given the Nobel Prize in Literature to a songwriter.”
Attlee, best known for his books Nocturne, Station to Station and Isolarion – the latter reflecting on a journey along a single road in Oxford – is one of three writers involved in a two-year project to pack the meat of words into a new literary sausage. The Ambient Literature project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, sees a number of universities collaborating to investigate the “locational and technological future of the book”.
What does that mean? Well, if Bob Dylan’s laureate signaled for many a nod to the pre-novel literary traditions of folksong and oral storytelling, Ambient Literature says it will look to how literature can redraw these shapes over the next few decades, offering ways of thinking about words and narratives in a world of smart cities and interconnected devices. The rectangles in our pockets are equipped with GPS, cameras and accelerometers, not to mention a nexus of personal data. How can these be used to tell stories?
(Above: James Attlee)
Attlee tells me that, at least from his perspective, the project also needs to react to the current torrent of screen-based digital media – Netflix, Twitter, PlayStation et al. “Those can be what Saul Bellow called a long time ago the seas of distraction,” he says. “He was talking about The New York Times being so long that it would take a whole day to read, but now we have infinitely more things. As writers, we really have to inhabit that space. We really have to find a new kind of literature that can survive in that space.”
Music for Airport Wi-Fi
I talked to the project’s joint lead, UWE’s Dr Tom Abba, when the project was first announced towards the beginning of 2016. At the time he framed the project as something that would draw from fields as disparate as avant-garde performance and city audio tours, to shape something that, while engaging with the idea of a book, wouldn’t seek to be a replacement to the novel.
“Think of it as a manipulation of your everyday, a way of layering narrative over and into a location,” he said in February. “We’re deliberately not starting with a set of genre assumptions, or anything equivalent to a book model. We want to start afresh.”
Talking to Abba several months down the line, in the Pervasive Media Studio of Bristol’s Watershed, he reiterates that the Ambient Literature project will make works that connect, in one way or another, to physical spaces. He also re-emphasises the idea that books, as we think of them, haven’t been around all that long. “The sense of the book as a finished object, that you buy for sixpence on a train station – because that’s what Penguin did – is a moderately recent invention,” he says.(Above: Tom Abba)
Penguin first published its affordable books in 1935, in fact. The novel as a form clearly predates this, but it goes to show how our conception of books on bookshop shelves isn’t as all-enduring as we might assume. Similar assumptions might be made about smartphone technology. For a world changing to the rhythm of swiping and tweezing screens, the smartphone may seem like a cornerstone tool, but Apple only released the first iPhone in 2007 – not yet a decade ago. The grammars of interaction we have with those black rectangles is relatively newborn, and Ambient Literature says it wants to investigate how these things can be used to make novel types of literature.
“So much of what we read on our smartphones wasn’t made for smartphones”
“The kinds of opportunities for storytelling that are arising from, apart from anything else, the ubiquity of the devices,” says writer Kate Pullinger, who is also working on a piece for the project. “For me, in the last couple of years, the smartphone seems like a really revolutionary device. I think it has rapidly become a reading device, but so much of what we read on our smartphones wasn’t made for smartphones. That’s what my project will try and focus on – the affordances of the smartphone and what they might allow you to do when it comes to telling a story.”(Above: Kate Pullinger)
GPS, accelerometers, cameras, fingerprint identification… these are just a handful of the sensors phones come equipped with. While ebooks essentially import book pages onto the screens, Ambient Literature says it wants go deeper in creating stories built specifically to be told with these tools. To do this, it is looking to disciplines that share border walls with the literary industry, from podcasts to video games.
When talking about narratives that make use of the technology in our smartphones and play out across physical spaces, it’s hard not to talk about Pokémon Go. I ask Abba whether the popular augmented-reality game has changed the project’s direction at all.
“It made us look at things like augmented reality differently,” he says. “What it did was it explained a piece of technology to people very usefully. I think describing augmented reality, or any aspect of how Pokémon Go works on a technical level, before that existed, was difficult. Suddenly it becomes a really useful shorthand because everybody has played it.”
“What Pokémon Go does is engage with, not generic places, but a sense of relational geography”
As well as familiarity with the techniques of augmented reality, Abba tells me that Pokémon Go raises a potential way forward from purely site-response works. Instead of creating a piece that, for example, involves spoken passages triggered by geolocation in specific corners of Bristol – and which would only work in, say, a given park or cafe – Pokémon Go treats a map like a common, transposable game area. “What Pokémon Go does is engage with, not generic places, but a sense of relational geography,” he says.In an mini Ambient Literature project I experienced during my visit to Bristol, titled Experiment II, the participant is given a set of headphones and set loose on the city. A linear track plays – a mix of ambient music and elliptical prose – at one point giving directions to look at a reflective surface. It’s a decidedly low-tech piece, but it shows an approach to storytelling and environment that treats a listener’s surroundings as relative markers, rather than points anchored in specific sites. It will be interesting to see how this type of story could work when you factor in geolocation and other sensors.
Thinking about stories that are less like books and more like map markers may be one way Ambient Literature is tackling a literary form for the 21st century, but is Abba worried about putting too much reliance in technologies that are prone to flux and change? Does it feel like they’re trying to build something on ground that might not exist in two decades?
“In that respect, I’m acutely aware of the history of CD-ROMS, the history of early computer literature,” he says. “It is a shame that you can’t read this stuff, although the internet archives have done an amazing job. As long as don’t tie ourselves to one technological solution… We’re not on safe ground, but we’re building a firmer foundation going forward.”
Bringing experiments into the mainstream
The novel-on-paper is, in my mind, a perfect form. It does not need to change. If anything, it needs to be championed – as a space for sustained imagination, and as a democratic medium relatively free from the economic, generational barriers that encircle the technological skillset needed to produce digital media. But just because the novel exists doesn’t mean that other literary forms shouldn’t, and given the general sidelining of reading in favour of screen-based entertainment, it’s arguably necessary for literature to squeeze itself into a different set of trousers. At the very least, why shouldn’t be writers experimenting with new ideas?
And these ideas have precedents. Professor Jon Dovey, co-lead on the project with Abba, said he’s seen a plethora of works like Ambient Literature emerge from the art and experimental performance space over the past 15 years, but that these have largely been niche concerns. “It has remained in that slightly experimental world of artist-led gallery practice – theatre practice. I’ve seen and experiences lots of amazing pieces in that space, and because I’m really excited about it I want to share it with more people.
“Cities all over the world are imagining themselves as data environments”
“At the same time as that’s been developing, the world of the smart city has been developing,” he adds. “Cities all over the world are imagining themselves as data environments. Most of that is purely functional, but it seems to me, with the number of people walking around with smartphones, there is probably some room in that world for some more interesting, challenging cultural experiences.”
What shape those experiences will take isn’t clear. There are even questions, such as those recently posed by Will Self in The Guardian, about whether humans will need to tell stories at all, at least in the way we currently understand them. In the short term, however, the Ambient Literature project wants to feel out the edges of what is and isn’t possible when building stories for the new apparatus of our lives.