Two very different laboratories. Two very different experiments. Separated by two centuries, they share a common DNA.

Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus is a novel whose composition resembles the famous creature itself – a stitched together assemblage of Gothic horror, Romantic philosophical reflection, and science fiction, published in 1818 by 20-year-old prodigy, Mary Shelley.

Frankenbook, launched online in January 2018 as part of Arizona State University’s celebration of the novel’s 200th anniversary, is a collection of contemporary scientific, technological, political, and ethical responses to the original Frankenstein text. The innovative publishing platform that hosts Frankenbook is PubPub, among the first experiments to escape the lab at the Knowledge Futures Group (KFG), a collaboration of The MIT Press and the MIT Media Lab.

FrankenbookWith a stated mission is to transform research publishing by incubating and deploying open source technologies meant to build a new information ecosystem, the Knowledge Futures Group is a leading edge/bleeding edge endeavor. Yet it’s worth noting that MIT Press and MIT Media Lab have deep roots in computing and communication. Since 1986, the MIT Media Lab has harnessed technology for creative expression. In 1995, MIT Press published in print and digital form one of the first “open access” books – William Mitchell’s City of Bits, in which the author presciently observed the ways that online communication was a powerful and liberating force.

“We would like to serve as a test kitchen, an incubator, and a staging platform for the development and launch of open source publishing technologies and aligned open access publications,” Terry Ehling, director of strategic initiatives for MIT Press, explains about the Knowledge Futures Group.

“The open source approach not only reduces the precarious dependency that most nonprofit academic publishers have on costly outsourced technologies and a limited network of commercial vendors, but it also provides a foundation for greater insourced experimentation and innovation,” she says. “This is really a way for us to control our future in many ways, which has been increasingly dominated by for-profit multinationals. We are no longer technology-informed, we are technology-driven. Much of that technology resides outside of our control.”

As co-developer of PubPub with his MIT Media Lab colleague Thariq Shihipar, Travis Rich positions PubPub as a platform for passion as much as publishing. “It was driven by the different way that research at the Media Lab is typically conducted,” he says.

“We don’t have traditional academic grants that have a start date and an end date with a very clear set of goals. It’s an undirected research model that is supported by a consortium of corporate members. We typically operate by driving some passion and not necessarily just writing that up and sending it off to be published at some point.

“We enjoy having feedback and conversations with member companies of the Media Lab. That iterative, feedback-driven, interactive, data-heavy approach… felt like the right way to do research. [Before PubPub,] we just didn’t have a tool that let us work the way we wanted to work.”

Author: Christopher Kenneally

Christopher Kenneally hosts CCC's Velocity of Content podcast series, which debuted in 2006 and is the longest continuously running podcast covering the publishing industry. As CCC's Senior Director, Marketing, he is responsible for organizing and hosting programs that address the business needs of all stakeholders in publishing and research. His reporting has appeared in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, The Independent (London), WBUR-FM, NPR, and WGBH-TV.
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