Remix vs Shuffle

One of the key memes in free culture has been the remix, freely licensed content combined to make something new. Remixing of books is of obvious interest and there have been many explorations of this in various forms including the Rice University project Connexions. FLOSS Manuals has had the ability to take existing manuals about free software and remix it since 2008. Remixing of books is of obvious interest and there have been many explorations of this in various forms including the Rice University project Connexions.

FLOSS Manuals has had the ability to take existing manuals about free software and remix it since 2008. It’s easy to use this mechanism to add a chapter or chapters of a manual with other chapters from other manuals. The output is templated HTML or customised PDF. Although the remix feature (very easy to use with a nice drag and drop process) always gets very positive responses when demonstrated, however, it does not get used very much.

After some years thinking about this lack of use, I have come to the understanding the ‘remix’ as such has only a limited use when it comes to constructing books from multiple sources. A remix of a book in this fashion is not a good remix as we might understand it. DJs make good mixes out of several tracks but they have various tempo, tone, and volume controls to integrate the sources. A book remixed by the (outmoded) remixing tool we built for FLOSS Manuals is not like a music remix but more like playing back selected tracks using shuffle. The chapters are not integrated to flow well into each other, they are instead compiled into some kind of anthology.

The difference is not subtle and it’s easy to understand the problem when you look at the obvious popular example of remixes in DJ culture. A DJ takes multiple sources – some complete – some snippets – and works them into a continuous whole. For the DJ, remixing is part-curatorial process and part-production. The curatorial process is the choosing of the works and considering where and when the selected pieces will fit into the whole. The production process is changing the tone, speed, and colour of the sound and making it all work together. Without the production component, it’s not a remix at all – it’s just a shuffle of sound snippets.

Text requires the same kind of shaping. If you take a chapter from one book and then put it next to another chapter from another book, you do not have a book – you have two adjacent chapters. You need to work to make them fit together. Working material like this is not just a matter of cross-fading from one to the other by smoothing out the requisite intros and outros (although this makes a big difference in itself), but there are other aspects to consider – tone, tempo, texture, language used, point of view, voice etc as well as some more mundane mechanical issues. What, for example, do you do with a chapter that makes reference to other chapters in the book it originated from? You need to change these references and other mechanics as well as take care of the more tonal components of the text.

This is why remixing in itself is not that interesting and also another argument why some free licenses should be banned for free book production. An ND license (non-derivative) renders a ’free’ work useless for combining with other works. You can separate it from its original corpus but you cannot make it fit easily within a new one. You have no licensed right even to change the mechanical components. You cannot create chapters that will smoothly exit one book and enter another. You actually have to produce the mixed material to make it all work together – there is not really much point to trying to avoid this issue.

As a consequence of these experiences, at FLOSS Manuals we designed Bookspark to enable importing of chapters from one book to the editable environment of another book and we ditched the old remix approach. This means you can import chapters from other books and then edit the chapters to make them fit the context. That is the only sensible way we can work with this kind of re-use/remix.

See to view and share free educational material in small modules that can be organised as courses, books, reports or other academic assignments.

Books as Learning Environments

Books are of course learning environments. However, this is usually understood from the perspective of the reader. What is often forgotten is that book production itself is a tremendous learning process. As people work together to write/illustrate/create a book together they are learning a tremendous amount about the subject.

Kieran Nolan, a teacher at DkIT1 in Ireland, asked students to create a book together using Booktype. The project was for a module called “User Theories” for fourth-year students in the BA (Honors) program in Communications and Creative Multimedia. The course looks at different interactive media types, different user groups and the creative ways in which people repurpose and reuse all the digital creation and distribution. In Kieran’s words:

“The topic we had last week in class was ‘Emotive Design’ and trying to reduce user frustration with interactive media. In other words, looking at ideas of giving interactive products personality (for instance, avatars) so that users feel some sort of connection and less alienated to the product. So the students are being asked to reflect on the readings and come up with their own idea for an ‘emotive interface.’”

Rather than creating the content individually, Kieran’s students are creating a book collaboratively. Kieran liked producing a book collaboratively online because the class could share their ideas, learn from each other, and learn about collaborative production by doing it. The fact that students can produce a book from the result adds another dimension for Kieran: “It bridges the gap between digital and print media and produces a tangible product.”

Kieran utilised the history feature of the production software to track a student’s contribution to the project. The work counted for 15% of the final mark.

Over the space of two weeks, the class collaborated online both in the lab and individually at home to create a compendium book of 21 original design concepts.

The students I teach are well accustomed to using the online space as a learning environment. While a lot of material can be covered in the space of a single lecture, extra time is often needed to help students absorb and reach a deeper understanding of their source material. Online discussion of in class topics helps facilitate this. So too experiential learning is essential for reaching a deep understanding of a subject.

We can, of course, imagine a perfect perpetual production book machine – students write textbooks together and learn the subject and get evaluated on their contributions- the next year’s students improve the textbooks and hand onto the next year’s students and get evaluated on their contributions etc. Students produce their own textbooks for their school and to fulfil their own learning needs.

There are some experiments going on in this area but not nearly enough. The Open Educational Resources (OER) movement is largely stuck in traditional publishing work processes. With time, hopefully, the value of learning within the book production processes will be understood and utilised to produce more open textbooks which students need.


Federated Publishing

Federated publishing takes all of the concepts I have dealt with so far – ease of online book production, collaboration, reuse – and applies them to a new networked model of publishing.

In the social software circles, there is a movement that advocates a Federated Social Web. The main advocates are ostatus and the free software micro-blogging platform The Federated Social Web is a vision of inter-operable social network platforms enabling “people on different social networks connect with each other as friends and colleagues,” says Evan Prodromou.

Federation of this kind is not new to the web, and there are many online services which work like this. Email is a federated system – it doesn’t matter where you have your email account, you can still communicate with other people who have email accounts elsewhere. However, federation of this kind is not the architecture of choice for monopolistic social network enterprises like Facebook. Facebook will not enable you to install your own copy of Facebook for your business or school, nor does it enable communication between users on Facebook and users on other social networks.

What we need is a federated architecture for online book production and publishing. Anyone should be able to set up their own online book production/publishing service and share books with other book production/publishing networks, enabling anyone to reuse any book, anywhere.

Federated publishing supports traditional, established book production techniques while fueling radically different approaches. To achieve healthy federated publishing on the web, four key elements need to be built up:

  • Fee content
  • Federated book production platforms
  • People participating
  • Suitable economic models

There is currently no prolific exploration of this model. Federated publishing is currently only illustrated, I believe, by FLOSS Manuals. In FLOSS Manuals, anyone can clone or migrate a book to another platform, reuse and change the book without permission, and publish it wherever they like. That is federated publishing.

Federated publishing was anticipated by this astonishing passage from Marshall McLuhan in Predicting Communication via the Internet (1966), in an interview with Robert Fulford, 8 May 1966, on CBC’s This Hour Has Seven Days):

 “Instead of going out and buying a packaged book of which there have been five thousand copies printed, you will go to the telephone, describe your interests, your needs, your problems, and they at once xerox with the help of computers from libraries all over the world, all the latest material for you personally, not as something to be put out on a bookshelf. They send you the package as a direct personal service. This is where we’re heading under electronic conditions. Products increasingly are becoming services.”

This passage is usually quoted as a prophecy of the Internet to come. However it is not a vision of the Internet, rather a vision of the book-as-service through federated publishing – an open network of book production platforms connecting people and books.

In contrast, proprietary publishing dominates the search for new distribution formats and economic models, reward systems for authors and others, and fuels an unwillingness to make content interoperable on a technical, legal, or social cultural level. It was this context McLuhan imagined we were escaping.

Through collaborative publishing projects, we have found that not only is federated publishing highly productive, exciting, and fun but there are also economies evolving around it – organisations and ‘crowds’ pay to have books produced this way, and they pay you to help them to do it.