So, my fiftieth Frankfurt came and went. Three days of intense and interesting discussion with people who are building very successful businesses from the technologies and the social change in a networked society which I have been studying and monitoring since the 1980s. Much of this is hugely encouraging, some is faintly irritating (I still get questions about what happens when print re-asserts itself, or when will innovation be over!). But all of it, nine meetings a day, the receptions, and chairing the Innovation Day opening session, is, frankly – tiring! By Friday I needed a break.

And that duly came, though in the most surprizing manner. On Saturday I journied out of Frankfurt and down the Rhine valley to the comparatively (in German terms) “new town” of Karlsuhe. I wanted to revisit FIZ Karlsruhe, a part of the Leibniz Institute of Information Infrastructure, which is based some 12 km north of the site on the campus of KIT, the great technical university. That visit, on the following Monday, was all I had hoped it to be, and a testimony to the powerful work of these part (25%) state funded institutions in Germany. But more of that in its own context, having travelled through Boston the previous week, and experienced a grand party to celebrate the 50 years stuff with some 100 friends (enough of that now that we are in year 51!) I was pooped. My only interest was a delightful book on the history of sixteenth century Albania and I was quite prepared to embrace that for the weekend had not Karlsruhe itself intervened.

As I said, it is a new town. Started in 1715 as the Margrave of Baden sought to distance himself from the unruly citizens of Durlach. He built a monumental castle, and from his front door planned city streets running out from that central point in a great fan shape – its nickname is the fan shaped city. Thomas Jefferson, visiting at the other end of the same century, was impressed and its structure finds echoes in L’Enfant’s Washington. I was impressed too, and despite the disruption of installing a metro system, this remains a civilized and relaxed place. Go to Grundrechte square and you can see the civil liberties enjoyed by Germans emblazoned on street signs – this is the home of the German Federal Supreme and Constitutional Courts. The fact that this is a university town gives a pleasant diversity. By the time I reached the doors of the ZKM I was beginning to revive, but I had no idea of what I was to encounter next.

Imagine a huge munitions factory, stripped and turned vast  three story galleries that reminded me of the central space at Tate Modern – only much longer. Then fill that with a wholly mixed population of all ages and abilities united in one pursuit – finding art and enjoyment in immersion in digital media. Walk into a room where cameras pick you up and show you on a screen. I paused before the slightly alarming image before me, when all of a sudden I was joined on screen by the people who had passed through earlier, all crowding and laughing and strolling around my similarly moving image. Then turn to a scanner which wants to look at objects in your pockets, and then similarly mixes them on screen with the images from other pockets. Very simple stuff, this, but it drove the laughter and delight of the visitors as they went to other galleries, brought their own devices into play and felt the power of the most perfectly designed and produced art gallery for digital as art that I have yet seen. ZKM is Zentrum fur Kunst und Medientechnologie, and is an example to us all of the artistic and educational value of digital art. Gloomy reporters who ask what can be done to prevent children from spending too much time on their devices should be sent here for retraining. The networks provide digital opportunity for multimedia and individual media expression  and social art of a high order. This has to be better acknowledged than it is in conventional media exchanges, and here is a wonderful example of how to do it.

And learn from it. As I wandered through the elements of a major show called Hydrid Layers I was struck, involved and then compelled to watch a deck called Basilisk, a video performance by an American artist called Daniel Keller. Using two ideas – the Streisand Effect, which occurred when the actor’s lawyers forced the removal from the Web of an image only previously seen by ten people, thus exciting the curiosity of millions, and the Basilisk concept, from the ancient world via Harry Potter, where the threat can only be extinguished by holding up a mirror, he explores the 2016 US election. With Google Maps shots of Streisand’s former Malibu home being undermined by coastal erosion as a backdrop, Keller uses flat and unemotional language to explain the US Alt-right memes around Pepe the frog, the frog pharaoh, and the Cult of Kek, and how this symbolism and its cartoon imagery became important in the attack on Clinton and the election of Trump. And, if we are ever to hold the Mirror up to the Basilisk, these are things about a networked society that we must learn and understand. Indeed, unless we have museums and galleries like this it is very hard to see how we can, at any age, learn and understand.

I left ZKM with the same sore feet that I had brought down from Frankfurt. Perhaps slightly worse. But I was elated and refreshed by what I had seen. If the Hydrid Layers or Art of Immersion shows come to a place near you please rush to see them. The only way to stop our kids falling for the Kek Effect is to immerse them so thoroughly in digital art and society that they have the ability to fashion their own mirrors to expose to the face of ever-present Basilisks.


Here is a thought – as we remember that the Russian Revolution is 100 years old, the Frankfurt Book Fair has inaugurated its first innovation day. Well, since Gutenberg anyway. But since I am chairing the inaugural session of the innovative Innovation Day, I do not want to appear unwelcoming or dismissive – and indeed my mood is exactly the opposite. I want to use the day to celebrate the freedom of publishers to innovate. The technology which appears to allow their users to compete directly with them, the social mores which appear to allow their users to adopt a different attitude to intellectual property which undermines their business models, the distribution services in the network which undermine their market control – these are all, in a different context, immense processes of liberation which allow publishers to change roles and positions in respect of changing business models. Instead of trying to hold up the future, we have to take it on!

While not quite as momentous as the Russian Revolution, I have an anniversary of my own to celebrate. Fifty years ago today, I entered what was rightly known then as “publishing” and in my second week journeyed to Frankfurt in a van with the exhibition display stands to do exactly what a graduate trainee should do in the estimation of those days – help to put up the display stand, since his abilities in any other direction were not obvious. During the ensuing 50 years I have learnt that what I thought of and was trained to appreciate as a product – the book – is in fact a service. An intermediary service which conveys creativity form its source to an end-use, reader, purchaser. In seventeenth century England, in the first great age of books, when they cut off the head of a king to demonstrate that change could not be reversed, the pamphleteers described it as “a World Turned Upside Down”. In 1993, doing my very first internet strategy project I tried to describe what had happened in those very same terms, looking at a world where authors became their own publishers and where university reference publishers were re-inventions of University Presses. Now that we are reaching the point where the full inversion of the publishing model is taking place, it is incumbent upon us to think about “what next”, rather than how we  preserve old business models in aspic.

So, first thing, lets stop this romantic twaddle about “print is coming back”. Sit on any train or bus going anywhere and use your eyes. Print will never go away as long as we all love objects – the Snowden shelves in every room in my own house bear testimony – but as long as we do not measure effectively the circulation of self-published material we are only guessing, and the published figures of self-interested publishers associations are no real guide to anything, except maybe the ability of publishers to move to that dodo amongst poultry, the electronic book. Not that I do not read those as well, but I offer a simple maxim – Those who imitate Print in Digital Formats must expect a Short Shelf Life – and look at the demise of the newspaper industry if you doubt this!

So the point is not to imitate the printed book but to exceed it. EPub3 was long heralded as the vehicle to do this – and today it reaches rather arthritically  towards the same functionality that Peter Kindersley and Alan Buckingham achieved on fixed disk CD-ROMs in the mid 1990s. Meanwhile, still using this odd word “book” which we seemingly cannot do without, we are building in non-standard software all sorts of extensions of the book. Beautiful books which add AR and VR to extend our sense of reality , appearing alongside a whole generation of books this century which, since Inanimate Alice, have driven narrative through text, sound, video and graphics. And as we speak, a fresh wave of innovative books promises  you books which will interact with all the other books in your digital library, bringing you a “live” environment, cross-referenced and updated and allowing you to read one book while having the benefit of your collection. And, as an ex-school textbook publisher and writer, I get a real kick when I hear McGraw Hill’s David Levin describe books that learn to know the learner, diagnostically and socially  suggesting learning journies and demonstrating achievement. Books that speak to each other and books that speak to you.

Surely all this is innovation? Yes, it is, but there is one important caveat. In many of the old publishing sectors, which, incidentally, are moving ever further apart like ice floes in global warming. The role of the intermediary/publisher in the cycle is to move to support the end user requirement. As it changes, so must she. In areas like STM and HSS, the demand may be for navigation and discovery, for semantic web mark-up of pre-print materials, for data about usage and other altmetrics, or for the availability of evidential data from the original research – bright and lively companies are being built in these areas, but not by erstwhile publishers. Instead it is researchers who are coming to their own salvation – and publishers, still clinging to the journals milch cow, who buy them as a hedge against the future. Getting these people – with the honourable exception of Elsevier – to look at the horizon has always been a struggle.

All these issues and more will be debated in Innovation Day, starting in Hall 4.0 Hot Spot on Friday 13 October (!) at Frankfurt Book Fair. My opening panel has some classic innovators – Annette Thomas of Clarivate , Matt Turner of MarkLogic and Michael Clarke. See you there!