Software often arrives with promises to provide efficient solutions to decision-making, oversight and planning, but then proceeds to exacerbate existing problems within various regimes of work. Certainly, in the context of the university, there is a widely felt urgency to somehow manage the flood of new information management systems, archival technologies, visualization tools, social media platforms and other cloud-based commercial services in the already complex and overcrowded domains of intellectual work. The situation is frustrating, yet seemingly inescapable: how to keep up with ‘the digital,’ let alone utilize new devices and applications in critical and progressive ways, given the already considerable demands on time and resources? Technical systems and re-skilling have, of course, been a staple of scholarly life, allowing for new modes of textual production, epistemological inquiry, the generation of concepts and the pursuit of speculative aesthetics. However, there is arguably something distinct about the historical present, when networking is understood as an individual investment, when the use of personalized services relies on the expropriation of user-data, and when disposable technologies are experienced with their inevitable obsolescence already built-in.
Assurances are, nevertheless, made that some shared degree of technical competency and literacy lies on the horizon and that standards of best practice will eventually be determined. A familiar narrative thus emerges in which the current moment is merely a transition to be overcome by new tools, methods or the allusive figure of the digital scholar. However, as Jonathan Crary observes, such epochal narratives fail to highlight the extent to which transition itself has become a deliberately sustained logic of the contemporary life; for the vast majority, there will be no ‘catching up’ with the continuing pressures of technological consumption and competition (2013: 37). The rate of disruption far outpaces whatever scant time exists for getting accustomed to new rhythms of work before they are predictably overturned. This exhaustive feature of the digital, moreover, often paradoxically contributes to an expansive dependency on these systems; since “any apparent technological novelty is also a qualitative dilation of one’s accommodation to and dependence on 24/7 routines; it is also part of a expansion in the number of points at which an individual is made into an application of new control systems and enterprises” (43). Indeed, the extent to which cloud-based services and proprietary software have become thoroughly imbricated into scholarly work is one indication of these tendencies.
The prevalence of deterministic and pseudo-historical narratives of digital technology hinders the possibility for effective points of engagement, techniques of use and strategies to be articulated within these conditions. Beyond positivist agendas and epochal visions, what new ways of working together can be forged against existing trends of informational production toward fragmentation and individualization? What concepts, knowledge or infrastructures can adequately address contemporary problems of organization? In my own work, reflecting on these questions has led to an interest in book sprints as a method for the rapid production of texts, usually in a few days involving a small number of authors and a facilitator.
Tomas Krag and the Wireless Networks group initially conceived of the idea to record and publish technical instructions for setting up wireless infrastructures in developing countries. The process has been further streamlined and elaborated by Adam Hyde through FLOSS Manuals; an initiative that aims to write supporting documentation for free/libre open source software (FLOSS). Over recent years, the technique has developed into a sophisticated approach to ‘federated publishing’ attached to an iterative design process and the Booktype software, and tackles a range of content from legal documentation to cultural theory (Hyde & Fuzz, 2012). Book sprints, accordingly, are connected to a wide set of concerns that are at once practical, conceptual and political. Links can be drawn in its format to software development styles such as agile programming, but there’s something more at stake than computational expertise. A sprint can lead a group to language; create conditions for collective enunciation, produce new types of association and organizational forms.
While it would be naïve to assume that such an intensive approach would replace existing sustained long-form styles of generating research, the rapid prototyping of content is a key strength of this methodology that complements the former. Here, possibilities exist for important timely interventions into network culture – the idea, for instance, of a ‘flash book’ collectively authored to engage with an unfolding issue or controversy (Berry & Dieter 2012). Indeed, the slow speed of publication along with continual technological transformation has been an ongoing challenge in empirical and theoretical work dealing with new media. The dissemination of collectively researched findings, developing shared vocabularies and laying the groundwork for a larger research project are some other opportunities provided by the sprint methodology. Beyond concerns with content, however, are further potentials that are less tangible or immediate, but remain vital for countering some of the dynamics sketched out earlier. These include not only the support of open source toolkits, but also the initiation of new modes of subjectivation.
In this respect, like any process of preparing and publishing a collectively authored text, sprints tend to catalyze collective dynamics in particular ways. The book becomes a transitory object that weaves together a group by opening onto the social. As art historian and critic Sven Lütticken observes,
A Book Sprint is a way of producing an object (a new-media object remediating a paper book) under certain economical and social conditions. This takes the form of a production process in which not only an object is created, but also ‘subjects for the object’ – first and foremost, the people directly involved, for here the producers are also the first consumers. The book-in-progress functions as an actant impacting the people producing it, who have set up the whole process in response to the exigencies and antinomies of contemporary cultural and intellectual practice.
(Lütticken 2013: 51)
There is a tendency to use the term ‘communities’ in discussions of sprints, perhaps due to the influence of FLOSS; however, Lütticken’s account of the book as a mediating object invokes more radical understandings of inventiveness, pedagogy and subjectivity. The book sprint, in this regard, might be considered in terms of what Félix Guattari described as the subject-group, an early concept in his work formulated in dialogue with institutional psychiatry and pedagogy, taking cues from Freudian frameworks of group psychology and Sartre’s account of collective human life in Critique of Dialectical Reason (Watson 2009: 22-31). The group-subject was formulated in opposition to both ‘the individual’ and the tendency for collectives to move towards enclosure, conceptualized as a result of Guattari’s ongoing treatment of patients at the La Borde clinic with Jean Oury. It is contrasted with subjugated groups that tend to reproduce existing social configurations, performing ‘practico-inert’ structures, maintaining an impasse to speech. By contrast, subject-groups strive toward a kind of fearless enunciation.
The subject group is not a reassuring configuration, but one that accepts the possibilities of outside criticism, for dissolution and the risks of speaking nonsense. Central to the concept for Guattari is a dynamic of transversality, a notion that would return throughout his thought, but that acted as a tool for the group to strive towards: “transversality is a dimension that tries to overcome both the impasse of pure verticality and that of mere horizonality: it tends to be achieved when there is maximum communication among different levels and, above all, in different meanings” (1984: 18). In this way, the subject group is not a simple idealization of flat structures, as with particular discourses on network democracy and participation, but an actual measure of existing organizational dynamics, including the presence of formal and informal hierarchies. A key coefficient for transversality is the degree of blindness to unexplored alternatives.
Book sprints, accordingly, might be read as formations that break from subjugation or blockages in pre-existing media and organizational workflows. That is, the strength of the sprint arises from some acknowledgement of particular ineffable issues that other approaches to intellectual work cannot adequately address. These complexities require some effort of writing together, including a need to aggregate knowledge and learn from each other. It should be noted that real-space collaboration becomes of central importance in this process, a feature that demands a significant investment against the logic of distant and synchronous real-time modes of collaboration. The sprint group becomes singular through a process of intensive face-to-face discussion – writing, debating, editing – owing its general constitution to a specific transitory problem.
Through these dynamics, one might further contrast the sprint with applications provided by cloud-based services, where document-centric modes of producing content tend towards a dissociated milieu (cf. Stiegler). Services provided by Google are pre-formatted to facilitate highly individualized approaches to collaboration exemplified by annotation mechanics and tracking, not to mention the asymmetries of data collection and storage under corporate control. For Martin Keen, “the cloud is about automatically storing and getting content, but FLOSS manuals facilitates book production through participation, with a necessary hierarchy” (2013: 29).
Leadership is crucial for the book sprint, especially for given the central part of the facilitator, a conductive figure that leads, directs and arbitrates, but does not supply content. Facilitators work to evade the anti-productive traps that appear in the formation of the group, but they do not assume the role of superior. Rather, facilitators lead by assisting. Certainly, drawing a book out of a group is a difficult endeavor. Sprint formations will also contain the risks of producing marginalized voices, authoritarian contributors and the listless reiteration of rote knowledge. The challenge of writing problematically as a group must be facilitated in ways that do not simply reinforce existing structures of power in contemporary relations of knowledge production.
Crucially, if effective, such forms of experimentation with collective publishing hold prospects of unleashing otherwise unknown aleatory dynamics within and beyond the group. As Lütticken puts it, “perhaps we’re dealing with a new kind of butterfly book, a new type of object that may also be an unruly thing” (2013: 51). Both the pitfalls and incentives of sprinting lie with connecting transversally with other collective enunciations and subject groups in network cultures.
Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, London: Verso, 2013.
David Berry and Michael Dieter, ‘Book Sprinting’ (2012); http://www.booksprints.net/2012/09/everything-you-wanted-to-know/
Mike Fuzz and Adam Hyde, ‘FLOSS Manuals and Federated Publishing’ (2012); http://lgru.net/archives/2826
Félix Guattari, Molecular Revolution: Psychiatry and Politics, trans. Rosemary Sheed, London: Penguin, 1984.
Martin Keen, ‘Open Source Publishing, Booksprints and Possible Futures,’ Junctures: The Journal of Thematic Dialogue 15 (2012); http://www.junctures.org/index.php/junctures/article/view/219/311
Sven Lütticken, ‘Art History’s Objects’, Speculative Realities, Rotterdam: V2_ Institute: 2013, pp. 46-53; http://v2.nl/archive/articles/speculative-realities-blowup-reader-6
Janell Watson, Guattari’s Diagrammatic Thought: Writing Between Lacan and Deleuze, London: Continuum, 2009.