The Design of Authorship

Ball State professor Brad King

Ball State professor Brad King

Today’s guest post is by Brad King, a professor at Ball State with a brilliant mind for emerging media and tech. He will be a regular guest here for a while, writing a series on how people read (in general) and how people read within the tablet/eReader environment. (Read the first installment, “How We May Read.”) It’s a great honor and privilege for me to present his work here.


I.

The role of reading in American society is changing. We need look no further for evidence than research studies aggregated in books such as The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupifies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30) and Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses that examine the Millennial generation who neither read nor understand the fundamental cognitive structures developed by reading.

It is terrifying to read studies about the negative views of both students and professors in regards to reading. It’s even more harrowing when combined with my own experience teaching writing and storytelling.

There are days, it seems, that literate Western Culture is destined for the scrap heap, replaced by a visual, interactive world that requires less cognitive interaction and creates less educated people. (I say this summarizing the research and not as an editorial statement.)

But what if the reading problem isn’t as simple as forcing students to read and write more (which we should also do)? What if the problem is that authorship has changed in the digital, interactive age and writers — the keeper of words — have failed to understand their role within this environment?

After all, we know that learning and memorabilty are enhanced when words, images, and audio are combined in very specific ways. Shouldn’t an author creating stories for digital, interactive environments (e.g. the Nook Color) have the skill set to tell a story native to that environment?

And if authors aren’t creating stories native to the reading environment, it seems disingenuous and a bit anti-intellectual to blame the reader who abandons the simplistic word for more potentially complex, interactive environments.

In other words, as a writer and a technologist I have to consider the increasingly illiterate-ness of our culture from another point of view: What does it mean to be an author in the digital age?

II.

For Prof. Jennifer George-Palilonis and me, the answer to the question of what does it mean to be an author is more than “someone who tells a story” although that’s a pretty good place to start.

It turns out that figuring out what it means to author a story in a digital, interactive environment requires writers to think about writing in a very new way.

This past November at F+W’s StoryWorld conference in San Francisco, I moderated a conversation entitled “Look What Tech Can Do! How Will Technical Innovation Change the Business and Nature of Storytelling.” It was the kind of panel that angered traditionalist writers simply because of its name.

True to form, an audience member walked to the microphone and asked one of those leading questions (conveniently disguised as a statement) that writers in particular love to deploy as a form of pseudo-intellectualism.

“The story must come before the technology,” he said defiantly. “Without story,” he continued, “the technology is irrelevant.”

“Wrong”, I replied. “Look no further than the film or television industry.”

In the visual realm, story and technology are intricately tied together. Ask any screenplay writer about the story development process and they will tell you there are three stories: the one the writer creates, the one the director shoots, and the one the editor puts together. Each story is different and each is intimately changed by the technology used to tell that story.*

For writers in the digital, interactive world, technology and authorship are intricately tied together.

Of course, in the film or television industry, the three storytellers each have very defined roles with very specific skill sets:

  • Writers create the written text of the story;
  • Directors create the visuals of the story; and
  • Editors create the pared down version of the story.

In the digital, interactive age, it’s less clear what skills are required and what the role is for authors.

III.

It’s odd to say that it’s unclear what the role of an author is in the digital, interactive age. On the surface, in fact, that notion seems absurd. After all, somebody has to write the story and whoever that person is surely must be the author.

In many cases, the author will continue to be the single person who writes the story. But what happens when the technology becomes intertwined with the story process? What happens when constructing the story turns into collaboration between a writer and designer? And what happens when cinematic elements become primary to the story?

What is the role of the author when the story, the technology, and the design are intertwined?

Last week, and I spent three hours locked in a conference room discussing two ideas for our book Making Transmedia:

  • What would the design framework and the interface look like for our interactive book, which included prototyping navigation, fly-ins, and a handful of other elements; and
  • How would we create a functional index for a “book environment” that contains no pages, no particular linearity, and no simple way to display multiple forms of media without removing the reader from a particular point in the book?

In the analog, printed world, these two questions wouldn’t even warrant a face-to-face meeting. Any photographs would be given a label within the written text by an author (e.g. Picture1) and then digital copies would be labeled, zipped, and sent along to a designer who may never speak to the author; and the index would be auto-generated and then checked by the author and copy editor.

In the digital, interactive world, we spent hours developing design metaphors for understanding how the book’s layout might work and creating low-fi paper prototypes of the display screen and interactivity in the book.

We tweaked the narrative elements of our story, we replaced large chunks of written text with graphics or video, and we developed a series of interactive frameworks that have profoundly changed the way the story will be told.

In a traditional world, I would be called the writer and Jenn would be the designer. This, however, seems antiquated. My storytelling and media creation is profoundly influenced by her design, and her design and graphics are intricately tied to how I am telling the story.

In this world, we can’t operate without a functional knowledge of both interaction design and multi-media storytelling. The more we explore each other’s world, the better we get at understanding how the story should be told and how the story should be delivered.

And the less we understand arbitrary distinctions of authorship because neither the content nor the design can exist alone.

IV.

When writers start talking about writing it’s easy to get lost in academic-think, falling down the intellectual rabbit hole and never quite finding the way back. With that in mind, I want to circle back to questions I posed at the beginning of this essay: What does it mean to be an author, and how might that change the way we read?

As for the first question, what does it mean to be an author, the answer is that we’re not quite sure just yet.

In the world Jenn and I have constructed, technology and authorship are intricately tied together. Each of our processes contributes, changes, and shapes both the story we are telling and the way we are telling it.

(You can see our description of the Making Transmedia book here.)

But we aren’t just spending our time learning how to work together. We’re also exploring what the technology palette allows us to do because we will never be master authors if we don’t understand the tools of the trade. For us that means getting our hands dirty with prototypes and testing. It means creating really bad work so that we can create really good work.

To be an author in the digital, interactive age means more than simply understanding words. It means understanding story, design, and technology. When we do that, authors — however they are defined — will have the opportunity to create grand narratives delivered in ways never before available (a phrase I am normally loathe to throw around).

Once we begin to create grand narratives, then, we may start to address our second question: How that may change the way we read?

For now, we don’t have an answer. What we do know is that younger people read less these days (in some measure because of interactive environments), and as I wrote in my first post “How We May Read,” we know when people do read in digital, interactive environments engage more with content but don’t necessarily remember the content with which they engaged.

It’s much easier to lay the blame on the lazy reader whose attention span we can no longer keep because it’s very hard to master the trade skills necessary to become an author in a digital, interactive world.

Once we do master those skills, however, we will see just how profound the digital, interactive environment can be for both authors and readers.

That future is up to us.

* I excluded in my argument the Game Studies’ blood sport between narratologists and ludologists (Murray, 2005), who can’t even agree if stories exist within game environments even though companies now routinely hire writers to create stories.

Works Cited

Arum, R., & Roksa, J. (2011). Academically Adrift: Limited learning on College Campuses. University of Chicago Press.

Bauerlein, M. (2008). The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes our Future (or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30). Jeremy P. Tarcher.

Murray, J. H. (2005). The last word on ludology v narratology in game studies. DiGRA 2005 Conference: Changing views of worlds in play.


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Brad King

Brad King

Brad King is an Assistant Professor of Journalism at Ball State University, where he teaches classes on emerging technologies and storytelling. He is also the program coordinator for the Digital Media Minor, an interdisciplinary minor that blends emerging technology and storytelling.

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20 Comments on "The Design of Authorship"

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Florence Fois
Mr. King, I am probably going to have to read this several times, then refer to the articles you sited. It could be because I’m a slow reader, or because thinking simply of “fiction,” I have not considered the e-book as anything more than an electronically generated “version” of the printed word. I will assume that the techno-requirements you speak of; flyings etc. are used for a standard non-fiction text. From a pure fiction point of view, your comments that the writer will now need to focus on “more than” just the telling of the story, confuses me. How do you see the… Read more »
Brad_King
Hello Florence: I’ll do my best to address your question although I’ll begin by saying that to do so in any meaningful way will certainly require that you understand what types of interactions can happen with an interactive text on a tablet screen.  For instance: the scenario you described (cover art, ect) has no real relation to what I’ve described. Essentially you’ve described the problem with pamphleteering, desktop publishing, and any countless numbers of self-publishing systems that have always been around. They are not specific to digital publishing. That aside: let me see if I can’t give you a coherent… Read more »
Ward Jones
The past, present, and future of literature depend more than anything upon a literate reader. I don’t think an author, no matter how skilled in technology, will be able to create the kind of masterpieces that live from one generation to the next by design techniques. By impregnating “War and Peace” with a visual scene of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, say, or two second video of the black people who rose to their feet and applauded Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Engineering of this sort, no matter how skillfully embedded, will not to be as memorable, as lasting… Read more »
Brad_King

Hey Ward:

I don’t disagree with you that literate readers are important. This is what I do with my life: each 🙂

Your argument about multi-media, though, is not related exactly to my point. It’s a straw man, albeit one I agree with.

L.L. Barkat
I’d agree that technology is important. How something looks, how functional it is, how inviting is, and how it encourages deeper engagement through interaction… all of importance. Interestingly, to go back to the film industry example, the cool technology by itself lost out to the cool technology + story (Bobette Buster, film-industry guru tells a great story about how in the 1880’s Edison monopolized film and became furious when the crowds showed up for the story-driven films, over his other techno-babies he was more enthralled with. Edison lost. Story won—go to about 1:08 in this link to get the whole… Read more »
Brad_King

Hello L.L.

I think you meant to say “story and technology” won 🙂

It’s important to note that story doesn’t always win. Avatar, for instance, was nothing more than The Hero’s Journey played exactly to form. It was hardly a great story, but the technology – the delivery mechanism – was so immersive that audiences must have derived pleasure from something other than just the narrative. 

Great story in crappy form will lose out to mediocre story in brilliant form as often as it doesn’t, I suspect.

But classics will be made by those who can master both technology and story.

L.L. Barkat
Yes, Brad! That is exactly what I meant. Except I was feeling cheeky, and it sounded better to say it the other way. 🙂 (So I guess that story is also more than story, being technical in the forms of the words themselves… voice and all that 🙂  Absolutely about the Classics thing. Though I suppose we might always laud something like Avatar for its artistry. No one will make a pastiche of it I suppose though. (Isn’t it cool that Sherlock Holmes, for instance, has inspired more pastiches and fan literature than any other story in history? That’s what… Read more »
Brad_King

I can get down with cheeky 🙂

Anonymous

It remains to be seen whether or not the author becomes a best-seller – if he does, I will take his ideas to heart, if not I will consider his views that the design should dictate the story, what I consider it now: an interesting concept.  Structure, as any designer (and writer) knows determines form. And a great story will determine good design.
But if I have a lousy story, then it will most definitely benefit from lots of gimmicks.

Brad_King
Thanks for reading and commenting. I’m not sure why my commercial success should have any bearing on the weight of the argument. By your definition, we should only produce James Patterson novels (which are not written by him). But I assume you meant something different than that and I shall leave that argument alone. I take exception with your summary of my point: that design should dictate the story. In fact, I neither wrote nor implied that. That they work in concert is – in many cases – undeniable. (I may upon further thought even venture to say “in every… Read more »
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