In The Beginning… Was The Printing Press

An Engineer’s Approach To Storytelling

Neal Stephenson with fascinating facial hair

Neal Stephenson is a Storytelling Engineer, uniquely mashing up his left-brain Engineering and his right-brain Artistry into what might be described as swash-buckling historical comedic post-cyber-punk speculative fiction.

Stephenson understands technology. He comes from a family of Engineers and Scientists, and his hacking toolkit includes Mathematica by Wolfram Reasearch. He wrote ‘In the Beginning… Was the Command Line’ (1999) as an essay on the evolution of computer operating systems.

Snow Crash (1992) was originally designed (that word chosen carefully) as an interactive computer game. The technology to deliver on that design had not been invented, yet, and so the story was re-factored into a linear narrative, and implemented using that popular storytelling technology of the time; the Gutenberg printing press.

Later, in a 2004 Slashdot interview, Stephenson clearly considers the printing press as merely an interim solution to storytelling:

Gutenberg printing press

The novel is a very new form of art. It was unthinkable until the invention of printing and impractical until a significant fraction of the population became literate. But when the conditions were right, it suddenly became huge. The great serialized novelists of the 19th Century were like rock stars or movie stars. The printing press and the apparatus of publishing had given these creators a means to bypass traditional arbiters and gatekeepers of culture and connect directly to a mass audience.

Stephenson extrapolates, accurately. In Snow Crash (1992), he describes the Metaverse as a shared 3D virtual world, in which humans appear as Avatars. Sound familiar?

So we should pay attention when Stephenson extrapolates storytelling technology, which is exactly what he’s doing with his latest project. And because he’s an Engineer, he’s not just talking or writing about the future of storytelling technology, he’s building it.

Stephenson’s latest project is Subutai, a Bay Area tech startup, named after the military strategist and general of Genghis Khan, and focused on building a next-generation storytelling platform.

“The form of the traditional novel is a consequence of the technology of the printing press,” says Jeremy Bornstein, Stephenson’s co-founder and President of Subutai. “We wanted to explore what the novel could be now that it’s practical to use a platform more modern than paper.”

Or as only Stephenson could say, “[This] is what Gutenberg would have come up with if he hadn’t jumped the gun and released 600 years early.”

The Mongoliad - Getting medieval on your apps!

Stephenson is also leading the creation, or perhaps “curation” is a better word, of The Mongoliad, the first story being told using the technology. Stephenson also appears to be setting the company precedent for fascinating facial hair, but that’s probably another story altogether.

Anyhow, Subutai is an attempt to tackle the Napsterization of the printed novel. These days it is a trivial task to download a counterfeit digital copy of Snow Crash from the internet, because its linear narrative fits nicely inside a .txt or .pdf file.

The Mongoliad is not vulnerable to counterfeiting because it is an interactive non-linear narrative, with social networking tendencies, and a wiki and forums and reputation system to encourage a community of readers to augment and influence the story. A freemium subscription model is used, giving some content away for free and charging $10 for annual access to premium content.

No one will ever call my novels bloated again because they won't have the faintest idea how long they actually are.

Subutai also understands that the medium is the message. There is a deliberate blur between the message of the story, and the medium of technology used to deliver it. The story enjoys being presented on a website that is still in glorious Beta, and one wiki page still includes a discussion between founders on how much subscribers should be charged for access to the premium content.

Here’s hoping this blurring of boundaries extends to include the social and community features of the site, and allows the community to truly contribute to the ongoing message of The Mongoliad, and to the medium of technology built to deliver it.

So strap yourself in for the ride. “It’s spring of 1241, and the West is shitting its pants

It will be fascinating to watch this evolve. The Mongoliad, and the printing press.

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