Network Ecologies

Research Horizon

Read with love, the book, as Deleuze noted, is “a little non-signifying machine, and the only question is ‘Does it work, and how does it work?’” (Deleuze 1969). To reflect on the dispersal of the book into technical networks, we sketch a research horizon that allows us to comprehend not only what the book is, its status as key interface and repository, but what the book does, how it operates, and how changes in the way these operations are organized and related to changes in the way we organize ourselves as authors and readers. To read, Deleuze suggests, is to connect the book to its outsides:

“This intensive way of reading, in contact with what’s outside the book, as a flow meeting other flows, one machine among others, as a series of experiments for each reader in the midst of events that have nothing to do with books, as tearing the book into pieces, getting it to interact with other things, absolutely anything, is reading with love” (ibid.).

This is not the affective pathos of research, it is the acknowledgment that singular acts of reading involve an affective relationship. The way we comprehend the act of reading must attend to the affective registers of our own situatedness in information networks, and to the way this situation not only changes the way we read but involves changes to our capacities for relation that in turn further affect the way we read (Zehle 2015b). What follows are methodological remarks that signal our interest in developing a research framework that both offers a conceptual idiom and organizes a concrete workflow.

One of the reasons why we engage with the question of the book, its status, its uses, and its functionalities in logistical infrastructures, is that the book operates as a scalable interface to a much wider set of research concerns. A historical survey of the multiple cultural, economic, political, and social practices that have contributed to the transformation of the book into a networked object is beyond the scope of this essay. However, we want to at least reference some of the existing proposals we do not wish to pursue, because of their implicit oversights of the complexity of workflow integration, technical limitations, and failings in design methods to identify system requirements. A current example of such proposals are the positions in what can be called ‘document format battles’ between Markdown and HTML5. On one side, O’Reilly Media have advocated HTML5 with the project HTMLBook (, on the other side the Digital Publishing Toolkit ( has advocated Markdown. In terms of addressing the book as a network object, to focus on a document format alone is misleading, as neither format can cope with fully digitizing the print book, let alone extending the book to new hybrid forms. Instead the focus should be on requirements for any document markups, ISO standards, and interoperability, as well as technology stacks as opposed to document formats, as this is needed to cope with the complexity of the networked book. In our design approach, any document format can be used as long as it fits the requirements, meaning there is no migration or exclusion of users or workflows on a document format basis.


Developed in the methodological context of ‘Digital Humanities 2.0’, i.e. the shift from large-scale digitization (DH 1.0) to research that is “deeply generative, creating the environments and tools for producing, curating, and interacting with knowledge that is ‘born digital’ and lives in various digital contexts” (Schnapp & Presner 3, 10), the proposed project includes a strong focus on making, “making in the poetic sense of poeisis, but also in the sense of design carried out in action, the modelling and fabrication of intelligent things, the generative and re-generative aspects of creation and co-creating” (ibid. 8). As ‘born digital’ audiences access outcomes of academic research beyond disciplinary academic communities, changes in reading also frame the future of the academic book. From within a cross-disciplinary imaginary, the project combines a focus on software development with the historical awareness that the open artistic frameworks of modern and contemporary art already anticipate the reconfigurability of database narratives (Rossiter & Zehle 2015a). The project uses design research methods to implement its practice-based approach and provide a framework for a cross-disciplinary negotiation of the future of ‘the book’ in terms of both craft and code beyond simple analog and digital dichotomies (Sennett 2008, Anderson 2012). By creating actual prototypes and code-based workflows, with the aim to develop the idea of a 'procedural literacy' further into a comprehension of both the cultural and information-technological logics of how the academic book works as a complex aesthetic object, comprehended (and designed) as computational objects (Bogost 2010, Campanelli 2011, HPC 2013). A design research approach explicitly frames the analytical (and political) issues arising from the transition to a publishing process organized around hybrid objects.


Interface, Alexander Galloway has suggested, is itself a method, and attention to the methodological register of interfaces—its designs, its uses, its processualities—include the analysis of attention itself (Galloway 2012). For Bernard Stiegler, attention operates like an interface: the psychic and social dimensions of our attention already constitute “a kind of interface for what Gilbert Simondon called psychic and collective individuation” (Stiegler 2012). Attention can operate as an interface for individuation because ‘the formation of attention in which psychic and collective individuation consists is conditioned by material techniques,” especially the exteriorization (spatialization) of memory: “It is through this external memory, and as this exteriorization that is a socialization and an expression, that attention is able to constitute itself as interface between the psychic and the social” (ibid.). As a consequence, “experience has been technically exteriorized in the form of the technical object” (Stiegler 2012). This process is itself structured, grammatized, “first and foremost [as] a process of making the continuous discrete” whose technologies today aim at “the grammatization of the social relation itself—and through that the capacity to render it industrially discretizable, reproducible, standardizable, calculable and controllable by automata” (ibid.). The infrastructures that structure and sustain our communicative practices are also used to organize the grammatization of social relations, affecting the formation of attention. The rise of computationality as a methodological concern, i.e. an interest the operational logics of software-based research processes that affect use (examples: real-time use-dependent retrieval of archival content, digital rights management) require an engagement with software studies methodologies (Berry 2012, Wardrip-Fruin & Mateas 2014) and a data-driven cultural hermeneutics that affects the production and reception of academic research (Manovich 2013; Hayles 2014). And if we understand publishing as a cultural technique, the expansion of the archival register and the attention paid to a new generation of archive interfaces in publishing is surely one of its most significant contemporary transformations (Zehle 2015a).


Publishing is intimately tied to the emergence of new (hybrid) publics, and publishing interfaces play a key role in turning issues into “matters of concern” (Latour 2004). As research actors strive to communicate with audiences beyond academic peers, interest grows in new forms of research-based content and corresponding publishing formats that require a restructuring of the academic book to address changes in authorship (single-author vs. real-time collaborative editing and the incorporation of crowd-sourced user-generated metadata and use-dependent retrieval of contents from big data repositories), review (crowd-sourced, peer-to-peer), editing (community-based filtering), status (final vs. permanent beta), structure (modularized to facilitate reuse in other publications and online learning systems), design (cross-platform and responsive layout, social viewing and annotation features, incorporation of real-time information streams), licensing (buy-to-own, buy-to-use, open and public access, fair use provisions for artistic and  journalistic uses), distribution (cross-platform, peer-to-peer), and archiving (cloud-based repositories, NoSQL or object-oriented database logics) (CREATe 2014, EIFL 2014). To what extent the separation of academic and journalistic publishing systems makes sense remains to be seen; while developments in journalism remain beyond the scope of the proposed research project, we have followed the growing trend in ‘journalism tech’ and new storytelling platforms.

The proposed project intervenes in the discussion of academic publishing futures (Lambert 2015, Jones & Courant 2014, Suber 2012) with a concrete research proposal. The arguments are about who pays for scholarly publications and publication models to exist, the reader or the author, for example. Also about how institutions can act to address the Open Access agenda, in the case of Harvard introducing a Green Open Access repository in 2008 Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard (DASH) and making it mandatory that its academics deposited free copies of their publications. It is concrete because it outlines a specific research path developed in relation to what we perceive to be key trends in dynamic publishing. But it is also concrete in that it focuses discussion on the specific technological protocols and standards whose design in turns affect the scope of individual and collective agency through and within such publishing systems. The focus on transmedia publishing strategies reflects our own interest in the future of publishing as a key register of institutional critique (Alberro & Stimson 2009; Raunig & Ray 2009), a practice of engagement integral to many of the aesthetic practices that have both driven and anticipated the ‘subjective economy’ (Lazzarato 2014) in the context of which the current dispersal of ‘unbound’ (Hall 2013) knowledges occurs. The processes that have freed such ‘unbound’ knowledge are not, of course, limited to the field of knowledge production; but instruments of commoning such as open licensing schemes or piratical distribution networks (Rossier & Zehle 2015b) have a particular relevance to the dynamic of publishing.

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