The Tom Uglow interview: “Books are the future of books”

The Tom Uglow interview: “Books are the future of books” Image

Head of Google’s Creative Labs in Asia, Tom Uglow, is about as far at the cutting edge of emerging technology, art and design as it’s possible to be. This year literature and books in all their forms are the focus of his attention. We asked Tom to tell us why and what he sees the future of reading and writing to be.

What’s your role at Google and why the interest in books?

TOM: We work on a range of projects exploring the edges of emerging technology and Google’s platforms. Essentially we create experimental digital projects, sites, apps and experiences. Often we work with cultural organisations and practitioners to enable artists, writers and performers to look at new ways in which we can use all the digital tools of contemporary society to make art, theatre and music, or, this year, literature.

On your blog, you have described a dBook (digital book) as something different from an ebook and a physical book in that they are things that would not exist without the internet. What characteristics would you see a dBook having and how would one approach ‘writing’ one? Do you think dBooks are ‘the future’?

Tom Uglow. Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

TOM: I think books are the future of books in all the myriad forms. It’s this idea that there is a 1:1 author/reader relationship that creates the conditions for immersive reading, concentrated and meditative. It is this which allows us to construct lucid narratives and visit literary landscapes in our minds. This is an extraordinary ability and is under threat from our current culture of ‘short’ reading and over-illustrated narrative forms (everything else). You no longer have to think when you are simply shown, there is nothing to ‘read’ and that bothers me. So the possibility of encouraging deeper reading by re-engaging with traditional forms i.e. experimenting with books, means we can explore our capacity to transform structural or environmental aspects of literature. It just feels like something that ought to be explored further. Who knows what we might create.

Can you explain Google’s Editions at Play project and whether there are any opportunities for readers or writers to get involved. What do you hope to achieve?

TOM: We are working with the wonderful Visual Editions on a new experiment to create a bookshop (and some books) for novels or short-stories that can’t be printed or distributed, or sold in conventional ways.

This is all conjecture at the moment, but basically it has three components.

  1. Working with Google Play Books to create a store where you can ‘buy’ a book, and have it exist online, on your phone as a ‘book’. (Exactly how it works at the moment)
  2. Then allowing these books to act as portals or Narnian wardrobes emerging from their pages into web-based mobile sites or apps.
  3. This would allow us to build ‘digital books’ (sites or apps) with novel formats that Visual Editions could commission or invite writers to adapt or write new work for. They would then get paid when they sell a book. (woo hoo!)

This model also means that all the other publishers, technologists and authors could ‘publish’ via the same mechanism, either using their own ‘digital books’ or within one of our templates.

“I like the idea of books that mutate or disappear, that change depending on your circumstance or location.”

In my imagination, rather than trying to work within the epub format these ‘books’ will have a url that transports you to a digital location (site or app), or even into the real world (a book that follows you on billboards?), or chases you across the internet; we can imagine novels that have no beginning or no end, or landscapes that can travel in any direction or have any number of characters, plots, side plots and inventions. I like the idea of books that mutate or disappear, that change depending on your circumstance or location, or books that let you uncover material through challenges or in-book payments(!) There are many ways we can explore the vessel, and the context of reading without damaging the integrity of the reading experience. But that’s all we are setting out to do, allow authors to explore these new paradigms without asking them to learn to code.

red typewriterIn your essay you ask writers to consider: “what immersion (with the internet) might mean in 100 years time”. Do you see that writers need to write differently in the future or will the fundamentals of storytelling remain the same?

TOM: 100 years ago the book was near identical to today. In 1914 Joyce wrote The Dubliners and I could read that today in a first edition and barely notice. 100 years before that Jane Austen published Mansfield Park. So, hopefully, in 100 years the answer will be that immersion means exactly the same thing. With all sorts of ways of consuming writing. At least I hope there will be no change to the form, or the popularity of reading. However, surely we will have improved on printing process: the paperback is so ephemeral, and we will have moved beyond 8” backlit screens. It is not the art of writing and storytelling that will change, just the formats, and potentially, the limitations of linearity.

“I think the physical book has so much value as an object, bound atoms from the time of it’s own creation.”

For what it’s worth I think the physical book has so much value as an object – bound atoms from the time of it’s own creation – that it will always be valued and printed. I don’t think the physical book is going anywhere. The hardback is no longer utilitarian; they are divine.

One area you don’t explicitly talk about is the impact of wearables and the ‘internet of things’ on either reading or writing. Is this an area you have explored?

TOM: Wearables are fascinating but I think there are several cycles of breaking that technology out of the phone-oriented mindset. Likewise the rise of the sensors is also creating a rich and varied playground and we are working on a number of projects that sit in that space. However, writing for interaction, and writing for immersion are really, truly different things. I realise that what I am talking about is a very conventional notion of books, not really in the broader space of other kinds of storytelling or communication, but rather examining what we love about physical books and translating that. Which I guess leads us to your next question…

3038856950_3dd45020ff_zHow do you see the interaction between reading, writing, storytelling and gaming coming together in the future? Will stories become games – or vice-versa?

‘Games’ is such an interesting word and I have already had a number of conversations about it. It strikes me that ‘to game’ means one thing, ‘to play’ means another, and neither of these are ‘to interact with a narrative’ which is what we generally want it to mean. Isn’t English wonderful?

I draw a pretty binary distinction between forms of communication that require interaction, and those that don’t – passive forms. Everything we consume is either Game, or Not Game. So, when you get to that point it seems a little broad to worry about. Is a book that requires interaction different from Dickens, or not? At what point does a book cease to be defined that way? Again, this may seem less relevant for writing generally. We are moving into an era of content so it’s all good for writers that can work in more fluid, collaborative forms. But bookness remains a big deal for me – Anna, Britt (at Visual Editions) and I argued at length about the essence of a book (I was a big fan of paginal forms). Um. So, I have no idea.

Are there any examples of dBooks (or similar) that you’d like to introduce us to?

TOM: As I mentioned in the essay, we’re not breaking new ground in talking about these ideas, there are many practitioners and some fantastic authors. I might crib slightly from my essay and suggest a range of projects – from epic book-art-esque collections like eliterature to writers and poets building their own online worlds of words; to mobile-based stories like the remarkable The Silent History; classics like Penguin’s We Tell Stories; the simple genius of Joe Davis’s Telescopic Text; I would also suggest checking out Future of the Book.


Avatar About the author: Co-founder and writer in residence at Prolifiko | failed academic and ex-philosophy lecturer | maker of unpopular short comedy films.