A series of interactive online stories from James Bridle and Storythings accompany the launch of John Lanchester's state-of-the-union novel, 'Capital'
Differing concepts of price and value, the moral choices made by individuals under capitalism, and the web of invisible forces, market and otherwise, that shape peoples' lives, often without conscious awareness, are some of the themes behind PepysRd.com, an interactive series of online stories based on John Lanchester's post-crash, state-of-the-nation novel, 'Capital'.
Developed by London-based Storythings, over a period of 10 days, PepysRd.com emails users a set of questions about their attitudes to things such as health policy, immigration, travel and culture, alongside a series of choice-based mini-stories.
Key to the project are James Bridle's interactive data illustrations, which position users within the flows of live data that increasingly organise our lives, drawing human stories from the sheer, vertigo-inducing quantities of money, people and populations in modern economies. We spoke to the writer and technologist about the project.
Dazed Digital: How did you get involved with the project?
James Bridle: I've worked around books, ebooks and the network for some time, exploring ways in which literature is changed by its encounter with and conversion to technology. It's a strange and constant friction, that's less to do with what books are themselves, and more to do with the weight of culture that we place on them, as repositories of memory, knowledge and experience.
DD: Was the concept of choice in our mass consumerist landscape something you particularly wanted to highlight?
James Bridle: I'm always more interested in wonder than choice. I don't know how you stimulate choice, I'm not sure what it means, or at least I don't believe it means the same thing for everyone, particularly under current economic and political conditions. Choice appears to be something embedded in consumerist discourse itself, a politicians weasel word for inequality. Wonder, on the other hand: I believe everyone has the capacity for that, but they don't always know where to look to find it. Increasingly, I look to the network.
DD: What challenges did you face transplanting the themes of Capital to PepysRd?
James Bridle: It's always difficult to take the long-form, experiential novel and make it live on the web, which is a medium of no less depth, but with significantly different patterns of attention and engagement. So we chose very deliberately not to try and "do" the book online, but to extract a number of themes and explore how they fitted with online behaviour, with email, with personal data and communication.
DD: How did you set about creating the data illustrations?
James Bridle: In projects like this, there's always a period of material exploration. Just as physical designers understand the preferences, biases and limits of their material, so working with data and the network requires experimentation, tinkering, toy-building and prototyping. We looked at a huge range of data sources and visualisation tools, focussing particularly on two areas: meaty, newsworthy data like house prices and life expectancy, which are core concerns of 'Capital' and capitalism; and more transient, ephemeral but immediate information, like live flight patterns and the cartography of Google Street View. Work and wonder.
DD: What's your take on the increasing trend of social networks displaying information in time-based formats?
James Bridle: There's definitely an increased interest in history, archives and time on the web, due to its age, and the growth of social services, this ever-expanding outsourcing of our memories and experiences. Facebook, Ohlife, Timehop, Instagram: all of these services engage with our ideas of time, attempting to make sense of them in the digital sphere. Privacy is increasingly a traded commodity, in which we sell ourselves very cheaply indeed. What it will take to change this is unclear, but the first phase of the social web is definitely drawing to a close, and it will be interesting to see what replaces it.
DD: How did you go about drawing personal, human stories from the mass of potential source material?
James Bridle: Once the decision was made to avoid using people's identifiable personal information, it became more about contrasting and comparing: different physical locations, different ages and expectations. The network is very good at mapping identifiable data points, less good at the more intangible things. So we attempted to produce surprise and wonder, marrying the tangible and intangible: the realities of air travel with the sensation of wanderlust and weightlessness, the history of communication technologies with the very contemporary experience of photo-sharing and instant messaging.
DD: Did you experience anything unexpected during the production process?
James Bridle: There is less information out there than you think, or rather that information is less accessible than you might assume with all the talk of transparency and big data. Most is buried in proprietary databases and illegible formats. This information is controlled by, useful to and used by those in power, in politics and business, but, like the personal data we tried to respect, it belongs to those who created it, and who should have better access to it to make more informed, conscious decisions in our own lives.
DD: How do you see the relationship between more traditional aspects of the publishing industry and more innovative, digital mediums developing in the future?
James Bridle: Having watched the emerging relationship between technology and the publishing industry for almost a decade now, I am not particularly optimistic. Books and literature will be fine: they've always found new forms when the time comes, from the codex to the paperback, from the epic to the novel, but the industry around them is in danger of foundering as it fails to take advantage of the opportunities technology brings, as others take up the slack.
What is interesting at the juncture of literature and technology is the new forms of writing and reading that emerge, the resurgence of the essay and the short story, of hybrid forms of journalism and fiction, narrative and reportage, fanfiction and slashfiction. The network is co-creating its own literatures, and audiences' consumption of, conversation around and contribution to these will be the driving force of their development.
More info on Pepys Rd HERE. 'Capital' is out now.