THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

3 posts categorized "Digital scholarship"

09 November 2018

C M Taylor on ‘keystroke logging project’ with British Library

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a guest blog by Craig Taylor, whose latest novel, Staying On, is published by Duckworth in 2018. In 2014 he began a project with the British Library to document the creative process of writing the book, using key-logging software. You can reach Craig on Twitter at @CMTaylorStory.

Re-entering the academic world after starting work as an Associate Lecturer on the Publishing degree at Oxford Brookes University, I began speculating about writer’s archives. Did previous scholars have access to more hand-written and typed drafts of works in progress - actual objects showing the shaping of works of art - but with the normalisation of computerized authorship, were these discrete drafts abolished in the rolling palimpsest of write and digital re-write?

Plus, I was considering a new novel myself, but as I have written elsewhere, emotionally I was daunted by the long-haul loneliness of novel writing, a process I considered in my most despairing moments as like wallpapering a dungeon.

I spoke to my friend Mark about these two things - the lost drafts and the loneliness - and in a flash he had the answer: ‘Put a piece of malware on it.’

He meant that if I put some malware, or spyware, on my computer to note everything I did, it would record all changes made to an evolving manuscript, plus it might offer a weird kind of company for me in my wallpapered dungeon.

It was worth a shot.

I contacted the digital curation team at the British Library in April 2013 and they could not have been more transparent, accessible and curious. We started talking about how digital production intersected with the scholarly recovery of the creation of works of art, and it turned out that my first view of things was off. Forensic curatorial techniques for salvaging the development of a manuscript on a hard drive did exist. It was just that they could not often be used, due to issues of privacy. How could you go into a writer's hard drive if they were writing and receiving email from multiple others from the same computer they were writing on, and writing on topics that might be of a personal sensitivity to one or more of the correspondents? Without complex legal initiatives and sensitive multiple consent, you just couldn’t.

But a simple solution was available. To save us from running into privacy issues, I would just buy a separate machine on which I wrote only the novel. I’m not the world’s richest guy, so I bought a pretty basic reconditioned laptop. After all, I was only going to write prose.

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The reconditioned keylogging laptop on my writing desk at home.

We negotiated a contract where (to put it crudely) the data was the British Library’s but the resultant book was mine, and then we looked round for some software. The curation team found a piece of keylogging software called, Spector Pro about which Jonathan Pledge, a curator of contemporary archives at the British Library has recently written:

"The software used for capturing the writing process on the Craig Taylor project was the keylogging software, Spector Pro produced by SpectorSoft. In 2015 the company was rebranded as Veratio; Spector Pro is no longer part of the product range and is no longer supported. Spector Pro works with Windows variants from Windows XP to Windows 7.

After installation on a host computer, Spector Pro works by running undetected as a background application and cannot be accessed via the normal Windows user interface (it is not visible in the Applications folder). Access to the programme is by a default keyboard combination Control-Alt-Shift which brings up a password dialog box. The password is set by whoever installs the programme.

As keylogging software Spector Pro is not terribly sophisticated and seems to have been specifically designed for low-level company surveillance of employees, potentially without their knowledge. It is possible to run Spector Pro as a visible programme but this would seem to negate its original stated purpose.

Spector Pro can track and record chat conversations (as transcripts), emails (sent and received), websites visited and, most importantly for this project, keystrokes made, not only what has been typed within an application; but mouse and keystroke usage across the whole computer system."

The software was installed on my empty computer and I set to work.

But what had I done? I’d offered myself as a guinea pig, with my every wrong-turn, reappraisal, edit and mistake noted, recoverable and time and date stamped. Not only that but the novel proved punishingly hard to write. It wasn’t just that I was also writing a film script and an app, plus working as an editor of fiction and a university lecturer, and it wasn’t just that one of my young daughters was often to be found perched on my desk asking me questions, it was also the content of the book. I was aiming for a clarity of prose and of story, and for a universal relatability of protagonist, that I had never sought before.

The going was slow, but when I got the chance, and when I had chunk of work, I would arrange to come in to the British Library to download the data. I visited on eight separate occasions. My first visit was in October 2014, and my last was in March 2018. By the time we had finished we had generated 222GB of date, captured across 108, 318 files.

So, what exactly do we have?

We have information on every keystroke typed:

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This shot shows the raw data usage as a list. By far the largest number of keystrokes concerns writing/typing as well as work on editing (Find & Replace) with the remainder comprising system activity including backups.

 

Plus, we have thousands of screenshots, one captured every few seconds each time activity on the host computer is detected.

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From the moment the computer is logged into until the moment it is shutdown. Screenshots allows an output as either still images (.jpg or .BMP) or as black and white video (.avi).

And we have text outputs:

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Text output from ‘Keystrokes Typed’ for a single tracked session. As seen from the detail below the header provides information on the Application used, the start of activity and the title of the file being worked on. The greyed text represents the tracked movements with typed words rendered in bold. Time stamps are given, with the green text signalling the start of activity and red the end.

During the writing I had no access to the software on my computer and I had no clear sense of the data being produced. But while I never knew what it was doing, it actually did help me begin again with novel writing, to get over that initial hump in the road. Somehow the writing felt collaborative, not only because the software was recording me, but also because of the digital curation team who were taking the data.

I have been asked if knowing that the work was being recorded made me self-conscious, and, sure at first, I was minding my Ps and Qs a bit, trying to seem like a more competent writer. But that didn’t last. Soon I realised that I quite wanted mistakes to show. It seemed an act of solidarity with the writers I was teaching, to really show them what I had often told them, that writing is born from repetition, that every writer has blind spots – weak theme, two dimensional characters, flimsy plotting – and that only re-writing cures these ills. It seemed like honesty to uncover the tottering beginnings of what most people would only consume as the solid, finished article.

Not only that. I forget about the keylogging software recording my every character because of the story itself. I wrote earlier that it was a difficult novel to write, because I aimed to write as simply and truthfully and compassionately as I was able. Aims I found to be not as readily available to me as I would have flattered myself to hope. I forgot about the keylogging going on as I wrote because the difficult writing became immersive – as I hope the reading of it will be - because my story and my characters - Tony and Laney, Jo and Nick - absorbed me, and in the end it was their story that cured me of my wallpapered dungeon, the keylogging project being the booster to get the journey started.

And so now, what are we going to do with the data? Well, I’m not going to do anything with it, I don’t have the skills. The data is now placed in the public domain, under a Creative Commons BY license, running free at :  https://data.bl.uk/cmtaylorkeylogging/. So, if you are a scholar of digital humanities, or a digital artist or a creative visualizer, be our guest. The data is there to be played with. It would be lovely to know what you did with it.

 

 

04 July 2018

Keitai shousetsu: the first mobile phone fictions

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by Alastair Horne, a Collaborative Doctoral Partnership PhD student based at the British Library and Bath Spa University. His research explores how mobile phones are changing storytelling.

The launch of the iPhone in June 2007 marked a turning point for mobile phones. It transformed the smartphone, previously a business tool exemplified by the dull but effective Blackberry, into a desirable consumer product. This transformation was embodied in the phone’s most striking feature: on a Blackberry, the screen shared the front of the phone with the physical keyboard that had given the device its name, its keys resembling the drupelets of a blackberry; on the iPhone, that screen had now consumed the keyboard to occupy the entire front of the device.

This symbolised the smartphone’s conversion from a tool for writing emails to a consumer device: one on which media could be consumed easily and pleasurably. That is one of the reasons why I take the iPhone’s launch as the starting-point for my research, which explores how storytelling – the kinds of stories we tell, and how we talk about stories – is being transformed by these devices and their affordances: their connectivity and ability to respond to our input, their capacity for playing different kinds of media, and their portability and the fact that they know where we are.

These highly capable devices seemed a world away from the first mobile phone I’d owned when working as an English teacher in Japan at the turn of the millennium, its tiny square screen able to display maybe a hundred or so characters, and its twelve or so keys rendering typing an awkward, sometimes painful experience. And yet as my research progressed, I discovered that these very basic phones had given rise to their own kind of mobile-specific storytelling, which had some surprising elements in common with the new kinds of stories I was examining.

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Credit: Joi Ito

The first mobile phone fictions had begun to appear even before I left Japan in 2001: the first, Deep Love, was written by a former teacher who posted it to his mobile-friendly website in 2000, using the pseudonym Yoshi. Telling the story of a seventeen-year-old schoolgirl who takes up prostitution to pay for an operation for her boyfriend, and dies after contracting HIV, the novel established the template for the stories that would later form the cellphone novel genre: colloquial and confessional in tone, like the messages people were used to reading on their phones; dark, sensational, and sexual, in content.

The cellphone novel – ‘keitai shousetsu’ in Japanese – had two parents: the long and crowded journeys silently endured each day by Japanese commuters, and the enthusiastic adoption of comparatively advanced mobile phones by the country’s young people. Serialised in short chapters of between fifty and a hundred words that could be downloaded quickly and cheaply and read between stops, these stories rapidly became a massive participatory phenomenon in Japan. Inspired by Yoshi, thousands of Japanese people began to publish their own stories using homepage building sites – the local equivalent of Geocities – which responded by developing templates to suit these new types of serialised fictions.

Like the smartphone stories that are the main focus of my study, these stories refashioned the roles of author, text, and reader in fascinating ways. Their writers bore little resemblance to the authors published by established Japanese publishers and had rather more in common with their readers. Mostly women in their teens and twenties who had never written before – the modest cellphone seemingly unlocking the creativity of an entire demographic – they often wrote their novels in just the same context as their readers consumed them, typing them out on their phones’ tiny keypads on their journeys to and from school and/or work.

Their readers, also mostly women in their teens and twenties, few of whom read traditional print fiction, had correspondingly little in common with conventional Japanese readers. Most intriguingly, they enjoyed relationships with the stories’ authors that go considerably beyond what we see today on social media, even though most authors, like Yoshi, used pseudonyms to hide their true identities not only from readers but also from schoolfriends, colleagues, parents, and their fellow commuters. The websites that published these novels enabled readers and authors to send each other messages: consequently, readers offered authors their thoughts on the novels, pointing out errors and offering suggestions for future developments. (Most cellphone novels were written, as they were published, in instalments.) The writing process correspondingly became collaborative, as writers incorporated these ideas into their work. (Yoshi, for instance, has said that the idea of his heroine contracting HIV came from a reader who told him of her own experiences.)

With their colloquial language and shocking storylines, the stories themselves were also very different to traditional Japanese novels. Significantly, when these cellphone stories began to be published in print form, enjoying such phenomenal success that at one point four of the five bestselling novels in Japan had begun life on a cellphone, it was by newer, less conventional publishers who retained the left-to-right, top-to-bottom formatting the stories had had on-screen, rather than the top-to-bottom right-to-left reading order of traditional Japanese script; unlike the conventional publishers who had approached Yoshi soon after Deep Love became a mobile success, they did not attempt to censor their content, either.

Though the cellphone novel was in many respects a peculiarly Japanese form, drawing upon the specific cultural and technological conditions in Japan at the start of this millennium, its influence can still be seen today. Its most obvious heir is Wattpad, the storytelling site whose 65 million users now spend 23 billion minutes every month reading its 400 million stories. Originally envisaged as a way to read on mobile phones, Wattpad retains the collaborative, community, and episodic aspects of cellphone novels; newer apps like Hooked, Tap, and Yarn, meanwhile, have updated the colloquial tone and mobile-specificity of keitai shousetsu by telling stories through text and multimedia messaging; the reader taps the screen to read the next part of the story.

Compared to the interactive, multimedia, location-aware fictions of today – stories like Eighty Days and The Cartographer’s Confession – the Japanese cellphone novels of the 2000s may seem limited. In their use of the admittedly limited mobile technology available to them, however, to tell new kinds of stories and rework the roles of author, text, and reader, they set the scene for today’s mobile fictions, and for my own research.

Alastair tweets as pressfuturist and blogs at www.pressfuturist.com.

Anyone interested in mobile fictions might be interested in attending the British Library Interactive Fiction Summer School, which begins on Monday 23 July and runs for five days; booking details are available here.

04 July 2017

First Steps into Interactive Fiction

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by Jerry Jenkins, Curator of Emerging Media, Contemporary British Printed Collections

It won’t be long until the Infinite Library Summer School. In preparation for this I’m considering choices. What will I speak about? Where will my session led?  How should I introduce my subject?  What is too much?, Where to begin?  

When I say considering choices, what I actually mean is I am considering how narratives take twists and turns, and how great stories can pivot on a single choice which leads the protagonist to the enviable ending. Do these so called choices actually influence the destination or simply the route?

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The Infinite Library

In literary crime and historical fiction the doctoring of the historical narrative as a device often used to present a rich fictional world in which characters meander through historical events into fictional events. Two such examples constructed around an alternate history of the Second World War are SS-GB by Len Deighton and Richard Harris’s Fatherland.  Such a literary method opens an avenue of free agency for the personae dramatica allowing them to operate in an alternative universe, but one which is tied to recognised conventions of good and evil.   

A fundamental of shifting the lens from the historical is under pinning its transition of familiar waypoints in a recognisable environment.  For instance Harris references Albert Speer’s architectural plans and models of a post war reconstruction of Berlin when his fictional protagonist Xavier March travels around the composite Berlin of 1964 in the course of his investigations. Harris himself describes Fatherland as a ‘huge geopolitical "what if"’ thereby raising wider questions relevant historical questions by using alternate history.  

Fatherland Berlin 1964

Map of Berlin 1964 from the 1993 edition of Fatherland interesting  the first edition does not contain this map.     

In making these choices and blending the historical and the fictional it is possible to take the next logical step and give the reader agency in the creative process.  One of the finest examples of this is 80 Days, by innovative Cambridge based games developer, Inkle. They completely reimagined Jules Verne’s travelogue classic Around the World in Eighty Days.  This work literally puts the reader in the driving seat for a trans-continental race against time.  Where the reader is presented with a range of choices on how to proceed, who to interact with and what to read within the narrative.

Over recent years the British Library has taken an interest in interactive works; as part of last year’s International Games Day @ your library (now International Games Week for 2018) we hosted a WordPlay festival, to showcase of some of the best current international interactive fiction and earlier this year, as part of the London Games Festival fringe, we ran Off the Page: Literature and Games, looking at how the fictional worlds of our favourite novels and plays are represented in games and in return what games bring to the written word.

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The Wondering Lands of Alice by Off Our Rockers

Continuing on from these initiatives, next month, the Library is teaming up with award winning poet Abigail Parry to run an Interactive Fiction Summer School. So if you have aspirations to lead your readers down the rabbit hole of the infinite library into stories where they choose the outcome, then you may wish to drink me….