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Digital Literature: Whose Book is it Anyway?

30/04/2012 14:21 | Updated 29 June 2012

It could soon be possible to create your own book without writing a word. Using a later version of "Rokfor" software first demonstrated in the Encyclopaedizer project in 2003, Swiss networker and literary critic Beat Mazenauer is putting together plans for a website where you can assemble your own publication. Simply type in the subjects that interest you and leave the computer do the rest, trawling through a vast database of resources from books and the internet to collate a cut-and-paste text that you can download to your computer and ereader, or print out. It's your book and you're the co-author. Right?

This form of "pla[y]giarism" was just one of the many creative innovations Mazenauer explored during his three-hour workshop on "Communicating literature through the internet" at the Ingeborg Bachmann Centre for Austrian Literature in the University of London's Institute of Germanic & Romance Studies last week. Taking a small but select audience through some of the more outlandish possibilities thrown up for books on the "word wild web", Mazenauer revealed how the "new playground" of the internet has challenged old authorities and structures. Digital publishing nowadays, it seems, is anybody's game.

Mazenauer is well-versed in the imaginative and even anarchic possibilities that the virtual world creates. Having been involved with arts projects on the internet since the early days of the information superhighway, he is the driving force behind such collaborations as the literature platform Readme.cc and the recent Imaginary Museum of Migration, which collects and displays the migration stories of its users.

Perhaps his most striking venture to date is the Swiss Ministry of Culture, of which he is General Secretary. Founded in 2006, the project highlights the power of domain names, capitalising on the fact that Switzerland has no official ministry of culture as its government members are known as federal councillors. Despite having nothing more substantial than a website and a business card, the credibility of the domain name has enabled Mazenauer and his two predecessors - elected by the internet community - to assume a surprising amount of clout. The business card was even enough to convince a guard on a high-speed train in Germany to stop the service and take the first Minister of Culture back to Frankfurt when he overslept.

With accepted structures and hierarchies crumbling at the click of a mouse, it's no surprise that the boundaries of what is and is not a book are coming into question too. Challenging the traditional polar opposition between the fixed, stable, solid creation of the printed volume and the fluid, collaborative, playful world of the net, Mazenauer showed how performance art and multimedia are reducing the central importance of the book and throwing its covers open to embrace a much broader spectrum of things. Looked at in this way, the internet itself could even be considered a book.

Although the rise of digital literature brings with it a range of problems and challenges, such as plagiarism, piracy and the difficulty of keeping sites up-to-date, it is hard not to be excited by the possibilities. Whether you're watching the wind ruffle the pages on one of the iPad's interactive books or collaborating on an e-story with people across the world, the freedom to write, delete and rearrange words so that texts keep developing with each person who encounters them is revolutionary.

Some of the ideas will inevitably fall by the wayside and be consigned to the virtual dustbin in the sky, but it is vital that pioneers like Mazenauer continue to push the boundaries for literature in the digital age. We might be surprised by what catches on. After all, 15 years ago, the idea of a book with pages that changed in front of the reader's eyes was little more than an enchanting image in JK Rowling's Harry Potter stories. Nowadays you can sit next to someone reading one on the tube.