Paper Is The Best Enemy

What is it about paper and books? We have the technology to wipe out what looks to be on the surface an outmoded way of reading books. And yet, like cockroaches in a literary apocalypse, paper books will be there, ironically, after the fire.

Is it the resistance of paper, the scratching, the push and pull against millions of crisscrossing fibres mashed out of a tree? Maybe. Is it because its just a lot nicer of an experience knowing where you’re at physically in a book and knowing when you’ll finish? For sure. But one of the big things about paper, especially when you’re in the business of building software, is that it always works. Paper doesn’t crash. It doesn’t require a battery or a plug. It doesn’t beep and blip at you begging for an upgrade.

I’ve been thinking a lot about reading. This is what you do if you’ve got a small book platform. I’ve been thinking of how digital books can not only be as good as paper but work with it. This is  especially the case when we have all sorts of reports of a slowdown in eReader sales and an uptick in paper book sales.

The actual point of building Bastion is to get people reading in their fractured, daily lives today. So take the best of both book worlds. Digital books are easy to add, edit and delete from, and paper books are nicer to hold. What is in between? How do books approach interaction and even games on a broader scale? What if you can unlock things between paper and digital? How do you sync them? How big is the paper side of the story? Pocket-size or something you put on a wall?

This is where Bastion is hopefully headed, towards a world of reading that fits nicely not only into the time of your life but also into the physical space of your life.

Finding a fan

So I was hanging out with a 16 year old the other day. As a 43 year old man, this could sound a bit weird, but I know his dad for ages, and it was all of course above board as they say. The really weird thing is that this kid is probably my biggest fan as an author, besides of course my mom who’s not read anything I’ve ever written. Otherwise there are obviously loads and loads of them.

About a year ago at this point I was handed on a silver platter with an incredibly ornate, Baroque, handle, the idea that this thing I’ve been designing and making shouldn’t be just for this amazing story I wrote “The Gates of Vienna” but could work just as well for reading and teaching real and potentially less absurd history.

I’ve been talking to educational institutions, universities, NGOs and the like and they all seem to agree: Yes Jim, this would be good for educational sorts of things. They are generally talking about older, non-teenager people though. Fine, but what about the people who are at a crucial time in their lives, and are often at this point turned off to the whole dusty and complicated hunk of the world called History and Literature and the like? University students are among the already converted so to speak.

So Bastion at this point lives on your phone. You take out your phone on the bus and you read a bit. Phones though in a lot of schools for kids are banned. Not all schools, but many if not most schools actually prohibit the device that holds the thing that they say is good for learning history in this case. The interesting thing about this is how my biggest fan besides my mom told me he uses his phone for homework all the time, except outside of school. He uses it to look up things, because its smaller. Its easier.

I always liked the idea of Bastion being a way better history textbook in your pocket. A textbook of sorts that is of course not only smaller, but one that you would want to read. One that would allow you to dive into people and places that you’re interested in and not have to slog through reams of paper to find the bit that really grabs you. A textbook of sorts that you would actually want to read.

Bastion started with a problem: How do you make reading on a phone good?

I’ve always been interested in how people use things. This is what I do as an interaction designer and digital product developer. I design and make digital things for people to use to accomplish something. But when I end up writing something I also think a lot about how it is going to be used as something to read.

I think about when and where they are bored and how long someone sits on a London train before switching lines or getting off. I think about the untold and uncountable amount of times a day you the user pull out your phone to do everything from talk to your sister about your mom, order what should be amazing but in the end altogether thoroughly mediocre pizza or actively avoid having to mistakenly make eye contact with someone. I think a lot about how much you read throughout the day and how much of it is going to be on a phone.

Software for reading should be designed and made to make the reading better. It should be about the content of the book, the words, the sentences, paragraphs and scenes, all being able to be accessed quickly and give you a way to navigate them.

As an author, I like to think I understand what it's like to write things for people. I know what it's like to pour your heart and slog through bleak, early and hateful mornings trying to write before the kids start crying. I know that intimately because I’m doing it right now.

Writing is hard. It is all about the craft of putting the piece of something to read together. This means that the reader will go through this bit before they find out about what Lisa said to Mark and how they, the reader, are going to have to struggle through a lot of pages of very necessary background on their family before they get to the bit with the aliens. Writing means arranging things – designing the story so someone can use it well.

Being a writer means though that you’re already given a format to do that with, and that format hasn’t in reality likely changed all that much for a couple of hundred years. Our lives are a lot different from when the novel first reached peoples hands. Reading formats like newspapers though have changed to fit the medium of the internet but not the day of your life in which its read.

Our lives have become very scattershot. Our understanding of time and what to do with it is all over the place. Our time itself is the same, bits of usable pieces here and there, sprayed out over the day. When your reading, whether for information or entertainment, is sprayed out over a day, this needs to be a major feature of the experience. But Bastion is something for this new mode of scattershot reading that has quietly stumbled into our lives. It allows the sentences, paragraphs and scenes to be accessible for how you want to read, with the time and condition that you’re given to do it.

So how do you make reading for people today good? You understand where and how they’re going to read and you do something about it. Hopefully, Bastion is doing just that.

5 Easy Steps to Building a Storytelling Software Platform

he Internet is full of advice. Loads of it. Most of it is usually in the form of a numbered list which will show you how to transform your life, your job, your industry and the universe in general. A couple of people out there might be wondering how you could do something just like Bastion. Well, wait no longer, here is the definitive list of things you need to do.

  1. Spend approximately one year writing a novel that you think people could read in a new way, but not be quite sure what that means.
  2. Spend an additional year designing and prototyping an interactive comedy-novel about a 17th-century siege and start talking to anyone who will pretend to listen.
  3. Ask yourself incessantly if it all would have been easier if you just wrote a regular sort of book instead of trying to reinvent the book.
  4. Spend a lot, if not most, of the time not knowing what you are doing.
  5. Continue making software as best as you possibly, talking to anyone you can, and keep on keeping on.

Processing stories

There’s been a lot of chatter about this whole big thing called Artificial Intelligence (AI). This is a term as wide and nebulous as is it trendy, but I'm interested in one bit of it, Natural Language Processing (NLP), and what it can do for things like Bastion.

I’ve had some experience designing around NLP twice in the past that I can’t talk about. One time was for the government and the other time was for a massive tech company that might as well be the government. Both times it was about trying to extract meaning and connections from what otherwise is a bunch of otherwise flat text.

When dealing with a large story, made out of a lot of this text, the primary goal of Bastion is to make it liveable or otherwise manageable. Sure it already lets you choose how you want to approach and navigate the story world and that, but what if it also could take a bunch of text and make sense of it?

The idea of Bastion is that you can navigate and explore more than just plough through. It doesn't do anything beyond providing a structure to browse and choose what to read. There is no notion of providing understanding automatically. Right now, with any writing, the author has to go through and assign things to all that text - this guy does this, or this takes place there. What NLP can do is analyse the text and do things to it and around it auto-magically. For instance, it could produce (reasonably) readable summaries, or even extract which is the main character in a section and even map them to the other main characters. 

The possibilities are quite amazing and can take things beyond static books. You could build a chatbot that could act like it's one of the characters you're reading. Or the book-software could generate things you're about to read based on what you've already read. As an author, you could even have it generate itself based on things that you have already written. What would be interesting to see is how you could use NLP to create plots and actions and then give them a brush of human and interestingness that we as humans are still most of the time better at than machines.

So where does it stop being your book if a machine is writing half of it for you? The dream is, of course, to chuck a bunch of half-assed notions and witticisms on post-it's and have the machine produce Frantzen for you. Chances are we're nowhere near this, and that's probably a good thing. What we do want though is tools to help make us better writers and readers, and that's something hopefully we'll soon get around to doing with things like NLP.

Having a bit of personality

Trello is a bit of software that essentially lets you organise things by putting them on cards you have to move to “done”. I use Trello a lot. By a lot, I mean incessantly. It is there running my family whether they like or know it or not and it runs my business and work life. I use this software so much I feel like I’m living inside of it. This is perhaps sad, and justifiably so, but how things work in this day and age with software guys like myself. Software is eating the world, to borrow a meme, and swallowing our lives. I don’t feel sorry about these guys doing it though.

I was once told, by an actual Greek guy, that “trello” means “crazy” in Greek. Apparently this wasn’t their intention though. The guys making Trello might just be crazy, just like it says on the tin, by talking about what they do in such an entirely antithetical way. In fact, it's more about how they’ve thought about how they talk to the world about the stuff that they put out.

Notice one of their amazing App Store description pages. It was so good I saved it. When was the last time you did that?

They’re taking the piss completely. For anyone outside of the UK, certain Commonwealth countries and Ireland, this means that they’re making fun of something, in this case, themselves, End User Legal Agreements nobody ever reads, and the software industry in general. This by a bit of internet that over 12 million people use to organise things. At the end, they even advise sending a fax.

Why I like this so much is that it has personality. It's human. In an age of mind-numbing, bland app videos with ukulele soundtracks and smiling people in the San Francisco sunshine, it is beyond refreshing - inspiring even. To see that someone out there making software realises that maybe we shouldn’t take the world or ourselves being so damn seriously.

Pending release

It's “pending release”. That’s right, Bastion–the app, platform, the whole kit and caboodle–is sitting somewhere floating around the interwebs in eternally sunny Cupertino, California. There it lies in the Apple App Store staff’s sweet embrace, cradled next to their collective bosoms before being sweetly kissed and then chucked out of the nest into the cold, cruel world.

I wish I could say that this has all been only a matter of course, and why yes, duh, it’s coming out just as planned. Things never seem to work that way. Bastion instead has been a rough ride of starting with a book and ending up with a whole way to make and read books. It was never supposed to be like this, but in some ways it was. The point was to create a new way of reading. It was meant initially to be for people to read my work, which they can do, but took an unexpected but pleasant turn into a proper product. Now people can read all sorts of things that involve lots of parallel timelines and multiple perspectives, and more importantly, its become a new way of reading that might just help teach kids history. Well, that's what some of its first users (knock on wood) seem to think.

So dearest Apple employee: remember, when you set my baby free to spread its struggling little digital wings, that after I quite unceremoniously press that button labelled “Release This Version”, that it's about reading and learning in the end, not just one story. While the need for people to be able to read a comedy about a 17th-century siege might be substantial, it is probably a lot more important for them to learn about the 1917 Storming of the Winter Palace, the history political activism in Britain or in general how we as humans have come to live on this earth and what we can learn from that.

Designing a reaction

Recently, I did my song and dance for the fine folks at RGA. RGA is a planetary size digital agency that was interested in hearing me talk about making digital stories and systems that make stories. For this I have immense thanks because I don't get to do this nearly enough.

There were some good questions and commentary tossed my way. I was asked about attention and providing reading in short chunks rather that in long attentive slogs and if Bastion was a reaction to that. This was something I never really thought about. I suppose it was a reaction. It was a reaction readers today, each with a digital ball and chains in their pockets and very little time to spare, being forced to endure a format that was designed for life  centuries before. This doesn’t actually make the pervasive continuous partial attention thing any better does it? It just lets you skip around more and more doesn’t it? Not quite I don’t think. What it does is allow you find your way through your own narrative funnel.

Long ago, while working on the alternate and still buried history of ex-Yugoslavia, the post-conflict education specialist I worked with said that putting lots of red dots on a map is the exact thing you should not be doing when trying to tell a story. What you want to do is instead create a funnel when you talk to kids. You want to show a thing they can relate to as a person and then widen it out to the greater context. This is something that I would hope would happen for a 16 year old girl reading a history on the beginning of the Russian Revolution for example. That 16 year old girl most likely can’t relate that well to a 70 year old general, but she might be able to relate to a young girl who watched the Storming of the Winter Palace in 1917. She could read that point of view, and then afterwards read other points of view, and thus understand the whole situation better.

So yes, it might allow you to read in shorter times, but Bastion encourages to find your own path through a large story instead of struggling straight through.

Having an enemy

I read somewhere, likely in the annals of 37 Signals lore, that when you’re trying to build something its good to have an enemy. I always agreed with this but never really thought about who or what my particular enemy would be. But still, I loved the idea of an enemy. Spite after all is an amazing motivator and if there’s one thing you need when trying to do things like build your own platform for reading in a different, context-based way, its motivation.

So thinking of things in historical terms as I’m wont to do, I was trying to think of who would be my Stalin, my Farage, my Le Corbusier? Who or what would my arch nemesis, personified as a digital product, be?

The thing I keep on coming back to is as plain and stodgy of a thing that there ever was. But its ironically one that we should in true Stalinist fashion, eradicate and start over with. I’m still working on some really bad metaphor for Nigel Himmler, so keep your eyes here for updates on that. On another note, why do I hate Le Corbusier? Because he thought he was beyond building buildings for people and I can’t think of another example of design being exactly for the opposite of what its intended so I rank him up there.

Its textbooks. You remember those? Do they even still exist really for kids? They still do apparently, although less and less I suppose, but more importantly they still exist in a lots of places that can’t afford them and can’t afford to update them. More than anything textbooks exist in a form that people think may have used to work, but I don’t believe ever has, especially when talking about events of the past and events of the human experience.

Bastion was designed to provide different perspectives on things. I spoke at a conference recently called “Plural Pasts” where, among being accused of supporting fascism for showing another side to WWII history in ex-Yugoslavia, I showed that we can as people have different tools and lenses on the large, swarming mess that is history. You can look at Northern Ireland in terms of Bobby Sands as a terrorist (still the UK’s official stance likely) or him as a freedom fighter. You can see how events move over time and place. This is the point of Bastion - to have many points.

What doesn’t really have many points typically? Textbooks. What method forces to slog through, waist deep in painful reading at classroom gunpoint just to struggle through something to find something to relate to? Textbooks. What makes kids hate learning? Textbooks.

Bastion isn’t supposed to make reading a slog, its supposed to make it a gentle stroll, meandering and finding a path that interests you. So if you want to teach about The Storming of the Winter Palace of 1917 and a 16 year old girl in school can read about the events from the point of view of a girl her age in an embassy across the road, and be excited about learning, then I think its mission accomplished and we’re hopefully one step closer to putting textbooks up against the wall.

Putting it out there

I’ll finally be releasing an app. It's going to be out there on the internet for anybody and everybody to use, abuse and lose. Its taken way too long to put it out there though.

I wrote a note to myself months ago, well actually more of a checklist, of “What would Company X I Admire do with Bastion?” They would just release it. They would let people use it. They would not be precious. They would make a thing that is useful, and to do that, you need to let it go.

I’ve been tapping away at this thing that lives there on the bottom left corner of the second page of my phone’s screen for what seems like forever. I’ve also tried the secret, cool, clever way of getting people to test it, and it just isn’t working. This is usually called a “closed” or private beta and typically involves hundreds of emails, complicated provisioning and way too many hoops people have to jump through. It's proven itself to be just way too much to hide a thing until its supposed to be ready - whatever that means.

Originally, I wanted it to be perfect before it went into the App Store, mainly because I read way too much about how other people launch things instead of worrying about what I’m launching. What I’m launching doesn’t really depend at all on ranking in the App Store, and I’m not going to have a launch or anything, so just going for it seems to be the best course of action. I know that because waiting hasn’t been working out that amazingly.

Designers like to make things nice, probably too nice. Its what we do. Its what we think about. Its what we talk about even. We like things to be perfect because we pour so much into things we design that it gets way too personal and you feel that any bad reception to what you’ve done is a bad reflection on you. This of course doesn’t work when you’re trying to make a thing for other people and especially not if its for a lot of other people. Someone will invariably not like it.

When you design things it's terrifying. Believe me, I’ve done it a lot. Designing a thing means, in theory, that someone else has to use it. So now that I’ve finally gotten around to designing and actually building my own thing, it's a whole hell of lot scarier. Its scarier because its mine, but its not supposed to be mine, its supposed to be there for everyone else to use as well and it took me a bit to realise that. So here goes nothing.