Sunday, 22 November 2015

How will it end? Boundedness, the satisfaction of completion, and never finishing the internet

After a short hiatus (I won't bore you with why*) I've had a chance to catch up with Michael Kowalski and review progress on the HayleyWorld zoeography app.

He's (hopefully) about to finish both implementing the algorithm and optimising the way the app works. And I'm going to continue writing commentaries, adding other content and thinking through the big question he asked me: How does it end?

When is a book a book?

Back in 2011 I interviewed Theodore Gray, author and co-founder of Touchpress, Wolfram Research and Wolfram Alpha for a feature in the Independent on Sunday about digital literature. Theo listed three characteristics that mark a book out as a book. If
"it’s bounded and user-paced and it’s narratively directed, then you can call it a book. Otherwise, it might be an encyclopaedia or it might be a website."
Theo Gray talking about books and apps back in 2011

By user-paced, he meant that it's not like a linear video,"that you are forced to watch at a certain rate. It’s a piece of text that you choose to read at whatever speed you want to read it at." He also states that the choice of navigation through the material should be entirely at the reader's discretion, while an author "takes you by the hand and shows you the things that [s/he thinks] you should read in a reasonable length of time, to get a good introduction, or a good overview, or a good in-depth analysis or whatever of this topic."

The boundedness of books is key to what I'm pondering in this post – and to how this digital biography of William Hayley will finish. Books, says Gray, "have a beginning and an ending and a discoverable way of knowing that you’ve read the whole thing. By which I mean that you can start, you can consume and finish it and say I’ve read this book.
This is typically not the case with websites. It’s an important and valuable and good thing about websites that they’re open-ended and they keep going. You don’t finish a website. You don’t finish the internet. That’s a wonderful thing. But it’s not a good thing in the case of a book. Because the valuable sense of accomplishment that you can have that I’ve read this book. And you can tell your friends. Part of it is the sense of satisfaction of completion."

Reading vs not reading endings

Tim Parks wrote a fab essay in The New York Review of Books on whether it's important for readers to read to the end of (good) books. One conclusion he reaches is
"even in these novels where plot is the central pleasure on offer, the end rarely gratifies, and if we like the book and recommend it to others, it is rarely for the end."
"it’s worth noting that stories were not always obliged to have an end, or to keep the same ending … It was only when myth became history, as it were, that we began to feel there should be just one “proper” version, and set about forgetting the alternatives."

A paradox?

Perhaps offering readers the opportunity to feel that "sense of satisfaction of completion" involves communicating the range of possible endings which would

a) explain my invarible dissatisfaction with forking path narrative
b) much more significantly, signal a paradox: to experience that a feeling of completeness, the work needs to we need a sense of incompleteness. Of potentials untapped, perspectives beyond the protagonists' storyworld…

 Tim Parks again:
"With novels, the endings I’m least disappointed with are those that encourage the reader to believe that the story might very easily have taken a completely different turn."
The conclusions Tim Parks draws concerning the relationships between reader, writer and text link neatly with a realisation Michael Kowalski's question provoked. The way we bound and/or end HayleyWorld needs to take into account not only how biographies finish, but also how, in general, relationships finish and, in particular, how William Hayley's key relationships finished.

How relationships end

While both his marriages ended badly, and his first love dumped him, most of Hayley's friendships either ended with the death of one party (his university friends), or with an illness that disabled communication – George Romney and William Cowper. A few others petered out over time. Only one or two – that with George Steevens, for example – terminated in high dudgeon. His professional relationships tended to follow similar patterns. Even though William Blake's three-year stay in Felpham ended in a colossal row, later communciations between the two men, if not overly intimate are courteous and amicable.

This also raises the question of how I want HayleyWorld's audience to feel when they finish – or finish with – the app. Overall, I'm aiming for engaged, amused and informed. But do I want them to feel about William Hayley and other key players in his story as I feel about them? Or do I want them to make up their own minds? What do I feel about William Hayley and co?

And how do I ensure that these questions – and all the others that pop up when I'm thinking about relationships between protagonists, narrative journeys and the user experience – inform both content and technical development rather than simply running along on a parallel track…

* oh, all right: work, ill teenager, divorce and building work demanding the Movement of Many Things. All on-going (although most of the Things have now been Appropriately Moved)…

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