Interview with Anthon Astrom (The Café Society – Astrom / Zimmer) – Lines, Interacting with an idea

The Café Society Project was initiated in 2007 by Astrom / Zimmer and collaborators.
Anthon Astrom and Lukas Zimmer run shop out of the Woods (Zürich).

Through The Café Society Project they investigate frameworks —rulesets— based on how reading, writing and organisation of textual information could work differently.
“We are convinced, that as our reading habits change, so must our writing habits and the way we communicate, and ultimately the way we think. Authoring is blurring with curating, and the expression of the in-between gains importance over content.”

Astrom / Zimmer is the driving force behind the Café Society: Anthon Astrom, autodidact coder, have worked as an Adobe professional trainer, conceptual arts teacher, and countryside mailman; Lukas Zimmer, eminent research fellow and graphic designer for both print and screen with a taste for all weather visualisations. Both Rietveld Academy graduates. Anthon and Lukas found in the Café Society Projects their ideal workout vessel, where they experiment with issues that would be hard to implement 1:1 in the commercial world. Some Ideas, visual solutions or small interactive tweaks discovered on the journeys of the Café Society Projects, they bring along to the Astrom / Zimmer practice, where they influence work they do for their clients.

Institute of Network Cultures: Can you introduce yourself: your background and what are you doing now?

Anthon: I’m a Swedish expatriate, based in Zürich (CH) after years of jumping around. I studied natural sciences in Sweden, conceptual arts in Amsterdam (NL) and data visualisation in Lucerne (CH). I worked as a freelance developer, teacher and digital workflow trainer for several years, before finally settling in Switzerland, and starting design studio Astrom / Zimmer together with my colleague Lukas Zimmer. In the fringes of our applied design work, we run the Café Society project – a sandbox for new ideas and projects that don’t fit in the usual tracks. Such as Lines.

INC: Can you tell me about Lines? How does it work?

A: Lines is a digital writing environment, based on annotation. It inherits from the idea that everything we write is a comment on something else. The initial idea was to create a space for authors to create texts in a way that reflects new reading habits online – targeted, fragmented search-and-find – and still maintain a stringency in argument. It’s free writing and reading, but with context. Picture yourself googling for information, finding an article that suits you, and reading the paragraph of that article that contains your keywords. Very often you discard the rest of the article – the before and after – and even more often you don’t go very far in trying to find out where the arguments presented in that article actually came from. Lines tries to rectify that, by forcing a strict developmental writing approach (annotations on annotations) and presenting that whole development to the reader.

Lines Intro (ext. play) from Astrom / Zimmer on Vimeo.

INC: Can we call Lines a digital book?

A: No, but. We like to call it by its subtitle: an Interactive Idea. It wasn’t in any way born to hold specific content, or to solve a specific problem, but is put out there as an argument in a larger discussion about textual information on the screen. It’s a set of rules forcing you to create and consume content in a certain way, same as the book, but to call it a book would kind of defeat its purpose; one of our main interests is to highlight all the other formats we’ve been using over the history; the codex was preceded by the tablet and the scroll, and variations on the codex format such as glosses has provided incredibly interesting interfaces to text which don’t necessarily fit with our current idea of the “book”. Then there is the question about medium… the term “digital book” feels rather oxymoronic to me.

INC: What have been the parameters, limits and rules in the design of it?

A: Oh, there are many. Perhaps the most important one for us – and incidentally the one that upsets the most people – is the fact that as soon as you’ve written a comment or annotation on a piece of text in Lines, that initial piece of text becomes locked-down. You can’t change anything which has been annotated. In the beginning this can be irritating, since if you want to move forward with your text, you’re stuck with a lot of things that was once written but you might no longer stand behind. Typos and mistakes all stay until the end. But this feature is absolutely essential to the Lines framework: if you’d write an argument and someone would comment on it, you can’t be able to edit your initial argument, or the comment will be rendered irrelevant.

INC: What were your main goals and did you reach all of them? Are you still working on it?

A: Our initial goal was to figure out a way to “write like we read”. As soon as we came up with the structural idea for Lines, the second step was to build it – make it interactive. As soon as the application was running we started inviting people to use it and discuss what it did to their way of writing and reading, and then incorporate it in lectures and workshops on the nature of text in print and on the screen. And this is where we are today, and the so far the ship is sailing without much trouble. If we encounter leaks we plug them, but new features have to wait until we have the time and capacity to realise them. After all, all the Café Society projects are completely self-funded.

INC: Did the feedback form users give you further inspiration to improve project?

A: Sure, but mainly little things regarding the user interface. I mentioned the issue of non-editability before, and I’d say that is by far the most common point of feedback. In those cases – where the critique is aimed at the principles of Lines – we simply enjoy the argument. And many of these structural feedbacks and ideas surely find their ways into other projects.

INC: What is the main difference between a book and an e-book? What about other digital editorial products (iPad applications, digital magazines, devices for reading in the web etc.)? What about calling them all “reading experiences”?

A: I’d say that until now, the main difference is that one is ingenious and the other is incredibly stupid. Ok, I own a Kindle and I do quite enjoy it, but for the fact that it makes my library portable, and not because of the reading experience. The print book has undergone centuries of refinement, and throughout its lifetime it has remained very high-tech regarding its components – surface, print, binding, size etc. Then along comes digital computing and screens, and what do we do? We take an ancient, analogue approach to presenting text, and paste it into this new environment, without even bothering to translating some of its most basic features – its hapticity, its location in a room, the act of turning physical pages, the fact that the remaining stack of paper gets thinner as you approach the end, etc – all of which are extremely important cognitive clues to the mind experiencing and processing the content. In this sense eBooks are worryingly poor compared to their analogue counterparts.
The term “reading experience” feels like a passive action – something that comes out of reading in a certain medium, using a certain interface. That medium/interface combination can then be viewed more mechanically, like a “reading machine”. The traditional book has certain functionalities that can be accessed and triggered while reading, just as a digital interface on the screen has. The “experience” is the sum of these functions plus the act of using them.

INC: The relationship between text and image has always been one of the core matters in visual communication. How has it changed in the digital environment? Do you think this relationship could become something different in digital publishing, and how?

A: Yes, on two levels. The act of reading (and writing) on the screen has a lot more common with image analysis than old-school paper pages, since it’s dynamic, and information can blend in and out as pixels, not having to follow the rules of linearity. This also means we have a lot more possibilities for replacing lists and linear argument with images, and have images carry a lot more of the “hard” information we traditionally had to put in writing.

INC: What about the relationship between content and structure in the laying out of a book (indexes, hyperlinks, different ways of visualization etc.)? How does it change with the digital? What about it in digital publishing?

A: Because digital interfaces are dynamic we can compress a lot more information on a smaller space. It started with simple hyperlinks, moving though old HTML image maps, and nowadays there seems to be no limit to how we can “hide” large amounts of information – text, more images, videos – behind parts of images or points in graphs. This makes for a super playing field for coming up with new ways of indexing stuff on the screen. And what’s perhaps even more interesting – by taking the things we learn from this digital indexing, and applying it to print publications, we can start to completely rethink the paper. Visual indexes have started to appear more and more in print books, and I’m very sure we’re still only scratching the surface of what’s possible.

INC: Do you think we are risking an overload of information in publishing, especially in online and digital publishing?

A: If we were, we’ve already reached it. There’s way more stuff out there than any of us could consume in a lifetime. The new challenge lays in content curation, and here is also a much greater risk; over the last 10 years or so we’ve started to trust filtering services way too much, to the extent that our favourite online gateway – Google – has started to provide personalised search results. Theoretically this is a great service, but the impact is that our world view becomes increasingly isolated. What we need is more overview – more blur – not more reduced sharpness.

INC: Has the traditional book changed? Can we talk about a sort of “paper reaction” to the digital shift in publishing? What do you think about the increase of self-publishing, both on paper and digitally?

A: Good question. Even if pixels have now passed paper, book sales are still growing, and I think we can agree on that the Great Book Death hasn’t happened. The question is what happens as soon as eBooks/audiobooks become cheap enough for the price to justify the value in the mind of folks. It’s already happened in the music industry, and it’s just a matter of time until a flat-rate book subscription comes along. What happens then? There’s no telling, but even if I classify myself as a hard-core book romantic, I have a feeling we’ve over-exploited the world’s resources in covering ourselves in paper for a very long time, and perhaps a more moderate consumption is in order. It’s great to see good, fresh content finding itself out there in ways traditional publishing hierarchies wouldn’t allow, but the trick – again – is how to orient yourself in a growing excess of material of variable quality. As the walls of publishing come down, the available content becomes diluted, and for the single consumer (if I’m allowed to still use that term) it’s tricky to see what’s really out there, as long as our window is the personalised filter provided to us by the great web services.

INC: What do you think about open source culture? What economic models do we have now in publishing and which do you think will take over in the future?

A: Perhaps first a disclaimer – we’re not in the content business, but in the interface business. The framework business. Our economic model is based on 1) applied projects, where we work for clients on specific scenarios, which pays for some of our non-commercial projects, and 2) traditional research funding sources for others.
When it comes to making money from content, I’m not sure where the open source culture comes in… Advertising will most probably live on, although in a more and more covert form. And like I said before, I think things tend toward flat-rate models. One problem that we haven’t solved yet in the digital world is how to give people a chance to get attached to content before buying. In a bookstore you can leaf through books, hold them in your hand, and when you decide to buy it you get a piece of material with you. With bits this is a lot harder, which makes it more difficult to justify paying near-hardcopy value for a single download.

INC: Can art and design practices make a contribution to the development of proper structures, models and even technological devices for digital publishing, and if so, how?

A: What do you mean by “proper”? Better than the ones we have, or simply viable? Art and design practice definitely can, is and will contribute in great ways to the evolution of publishing, but the question is to what extent. Until now the development has been very efficiency-driven, and we keep locking ourselves into certain design patterns when it comes to interfaces – digital or physical. Much of it has to do with our striving for consensus, and our fear of being unclear. Perhaps it’s time for the artistic part of creative design practice to get a bigger role, and push for solutions – interfaces, devices – which are blurry, more open-ended. Digital devices and their interfaces are the new grammatical rules defining the way we communicate, both inter- and intra-personally. And we need to start treating them with the philosophical respect they deserve. That means not only treating them as a means to a productive end, but as arguments in a discussion about bigger things. And this is the domain of the arts and design.