Glimpsing Digital Publishing’s Future at Codex Hackathon at MIT

Xconomy Boston — 

[Updated 1/12/16, 10:22 a.m. See below.] For the past 20 years, the story of the publishing industry has revolved largely around the rise of e-books, tablets, and Amazon. Call it “Digital Publishing 1.0.”

But what will “Digital Publishing 2.0” look like? If the ideas born at a hackathon at the MIT Media Lab this past weekend are any indication, the future of publishing is about stronger emphasis on design, interactive experiences, the human touch, and creating connections between literature and the real world.

The Codex hackathon, an initiative run by the literary studio Plympton, brought together over 150 software programmers, designers, entrepreneurs, teachers, students, writers, librarians, publishers, and more. They formed nearly 30 teams and spent the weekend creating rough prototypes of their ideas to advance publishing, reading, and education.

The projects included educational apps and games to help children and teens engage more with books and news articles, apps for making e-books more visually appealing, and software tools to help readers connect and collaborate. Some of the ideas tackled serious topics like censorship. Others were more light-hearted, like software that allows users to replace the names of characters in books with the names of relatives and friends, and then share the revised version of the text.

The diversity of Codex participants was impressive, especially considering the lack thereof in the broader tech sector. At the hackathon, there was a healthy mix of women and men, different ethnicities, and generations ranging from teens to people in their 50s. Participants traveled from as far away as Taiwan, Germany, Israel, and the western U.S., said Codex founder Jennifer 8. Lee.

The goal of the event wasn’t necessarily to spawn ideas that could turn into successful businesses, but to form connections between people with “different skill sets” who view writing and publishing as a craft, said Lee, Plympton’s co-founder and CEO.

“By having people of different backgrounds together, you get more innovative solutions,” she said.

Teams prepare to present their projects at the Codex hackathon at the MIT Media Lab. Photo by Jeff Engel.

Teams prepare to present their projects at the Codex hackathon at the MIT Media Lab. Photo by Jeff Engel.

The first Codex hackathon was held in San Francisco last summer. The group’s organizers are considering holding more hackathons in places like Berlin and New York, Lee said.

Unlike some hackathons, Codex isn’t a contest where judges award prizes to the projects they deem best. At the end of the weekend, all of the teams got a few minutes to demonstrate what they had created, but there were no “winners” or “losers.” In lieu of cash prizes, Codex used sponsorship money to subsidize many participants’ travel and lodging expenses, Lee said. Also, all participants got free t-shirts from Out of Print and Litographs, paperbacks from Harvard Book Store, and posters from the Recovering the Classics project. [This paragraph was updated with additional details about free items for participants.]

One of Lee’s takeaways from the event was how teams devised ways for individuals to customize their books. Examples included Replace the Characters’ software allowing users to change names in the text and Rebook’s software letting users make annotations and doodles in the margins of their e-books. “There’s something really powerful in that,” Lee said.

Although much of the teams’ efforts were spent on building back-end technology that relies on natural language processing and open-source software programs, it was clear that many of them paid equal attention to aesthetics and user experience. For example, Infinite Library aims to put the plain text of the 50,000 free e-books on Project Gutenberg’s website into a more visually appealing format.

“I had a sense there’s an element of human touch coming back” to publishing technology, said Codex participant Robert Wenrich, a product developer with Bild, a German tabloid newspaper. Five years ago, the projects at a hackathon like Codex “would be just code,” Wenrich added.

Mark Watkins agreed. “Some of those projects were art,” not just a black screen with white letters, he said.

Watkins—an entrepreneur who currently leads The Hawaii Project, a book recommendation service that donates 10 percent of its revenue to literacy nonprofits—was a Codex sponsor and participant. He created software thatintegrates with Spotify and allows users to collaboratively create music playlists for books.

Watkins was encouraged by how many young people he saw at the hackathon who are passionate about books. There’s an unfounded stereotype that young people are “buried in their phones” and don’t read as much as their elders, he said. He wants younger generations to keep reading, “but take it into the next generation of technology.”

“A lot of these [Codex] projects you can put out in the wild and just see if they can catch on,” Watkins continued. But that will be the biggest challenge for the ideas born at Codex, he said—grabbing (and keeping) the attention of a lot of users.

Here are five projects that stood out to me:

—LitCity: This app aims to create ways for readers to engage more deeply with books, through real-world experiences in places that have meaningful connections to literature. The LitCity team pitched it as a way for tourists to explore new cities. Users could search for authors who are from that city or have done work there, and then visit sites that were featured in their books or have ties to the authors’ lives.

—Readmember: People consume so many articles online that it can be challenging to keep track of them all. Readmember’s app tries to make their online reading habits more efficient.

Users create a profile page that compiles a list of articles they’ve read, similar to an activity feed on Facebook. More importantly, the software tracks a person’s reading stats, including the number of articles read, time spent reading, the rate of how often the person reads articles to the end, which publisher he or she reads most often, and his or her favorite genre. Readmember could become a social network, allowing users to share their reading stats, follow other readers, and receive personal recommendations.

—HippoReader: The software helps simplify complicated text for children and inexperienced readers. It’s currently an extension for the Safari Web browser that scans the core text of a page, like a New York Times article, and searches for less commonly used words that might be difficult for a child or teen to understand; it then replaces those words with plainer synonyms. The software has a slider for setting the reading level.

—Glasnost: This website would create a public record of censorship worldwide by allowing users to log examples of censorship. In order to provide transparency and ensure credibility of the records, Glasnost uses blockchain technology, which means there is a public ledger of activity on the website.

—BorderlessFic: This online platform would let hobbyist fiction writers from around the world post their work and enable its translation into other languages.