We wrote the book: “Collaborative Futures” Transmediale booksprint

Transmediale FLOSSmanuals booksprint

I’m on the airplane back from the Transmediale FLOSSmanuals booksprint in Berlin. In five days, six core authors, one programmer, and a handful of additional local and remote contributors collaboratively wrote, edited, and published Collaborative Futures, a book on collaboration. We started Monday morning with only two words: the title of the book. As we raised a toast to our success with the festival director Stephen Kovats at 10PM Friday, we sent the book to the printer. It is due back on Wednesday.

We worked in a large hotel room in a arts compound in Berlin that was a former factory. The first day we just talked about our personal backgrounds, and the ideas and experiences we thought were relevant to the topic. We each knew the organizer, Adam Hyde of FLOSSmanuals, and I knew Mushon Zer-Aviv who is one of my colleages from Eyebeam, but I had never met the remaining participants, Aleksandar Erkalovic, Mike Linksvayer, Alan Toner, and Marta Peirano. We didn’t even know who the other participants were until a few days began the sprint. As we introduced ourselves, our job was to write down all of the topics that came to mind, or were embedded inside of each presentation. We wrote these on post-it notes and put them up on the wall. By the time we broke for dinner there was a rainbow of 100 post it notes arrayed on the wall. We went out for dinner, and returned to arrange the notes on the wall in groupings. By the end of the night we agreed on a very very rough and rather generic outline: Introduction, Definitions, Process, Futures, Epilogue.

As we drank to our success, Stophen asked us if we ever doubted whether we would accomplish our crazy goal. I said that I never doubted, but Adam said that he was really worried when he returned the second morning to 100+ seemingly random notes on the wall, and a truly vague outline. But we started writing, each taking on a topic we were personally invested in. We wrote from 10am to midnight, with a break for dinner. We did this the remaining four days. One day we left to go to the open air Turkish markets near by to get more food for dinner. The Berliners left for the evenings, but the rest of us slept in the compound. Other than that I only left once to see a friend for a drink. We worked hard.

At the outset, Adam stated that he hoped we would write aout 17,000 words, which comes out to about 100 pages. A respectable, but thin volume. The main goal was to finish *something* and that hopefully that something would be cohesive. We ended up writing 33,000 words. We restructured the book several times, moving chapters in and out of sections, renaming, adding, and removing whole sections. We discovered topics that we realized needed to be covered, and we ended up not writing about many of the things we initially thought to be important. I can’t say for sure, as I am still way too close to the initial writing (we only finished 36 hours ago), but I really do think it is cohesive. Despite only working with each other for a total of 5 days, we quickly developed a common language, a strong working methodology that was a version of disciplined anarchy mixed with an immediate trust in each other to peer review and rewrite anything we had written ad hoc.

The book was written by artists who work with technology, and writers who write about technology, so it does take technology as a presumption. The book is very much about Free Software, and Free Culture. But what surprised all of us is that we never really talked about either of these specifically. For example, we almost never talked about licenses. What we did talk a lot about were principles and themes that related to any collaboration regardless of technological involvement or topical focus. We spent most of our time talking about about trust, openness, fairness, attribution, respect, organization, and goals. This was a collaboration that had all of these principles, plus it had great collaborators. It was an incredible success.