How Tolkien Leads the Digital Revolution Credit: Image credit: TammieKaye via Flickr
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How Tolkien Leads the Digital Revolution

On 2nd September it will be the 40th anniversary of Tolkien's death, yet despite an intervening digital revolution, the publishing industry is still struggling to keep up with his legacy. In fact, a survey of IDG Connect readers this April highlighted Lord of the Rings as the most selected favourite book.  But why is everyone still chasing Tolkien?

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, born in 1892, was often photographed in his study dressed in a tweed jacket, waistcoat and tie, with a pipe clamped firmly to his lips. Behind his head antiquated looking tomes line the old fashioned bookcases. For 34 years, he was an Oxford don. He specialised in Anglo Saxon, a subject which sounds as dusty and dull as it comes, yet through a brilliant mind and in-depth knowledge of language, he brought whole fictional universes to life. For many people Middle Earth is easily as real as London.

Now, in 2013, tablets, smartphones and interactivity offer the zenith of creativity, yet most content simply doesn't deliver on the potential. Sure, the digital age brings information to life, but it also expects a whole lot more from its creators. This is why the digital age is chasing Tolkien, because he didn't just write stories, he produced fully interactive content experiences, long before the technology existed to present them. He did maps, languages, songs and poems. He produced whole new alternate worlds geared up for total immersion and nobody else has done a better job since.

Tolkein died 40 years ago this September and yet, incredibly, his back catalogue keeps expanding. In April of this year a 1000 verse alliterative poem was published by his son, and literary executor, and with each year that passes he continues to reach newer, younger audiences. In fact, when the BBC launched 'The Big Read' in 2003, an overwhelming three quarters of a million UK voters selected Lord of the Rings as their favourite book. But none of this should come as a surprise because Tolkein produced the type of multi-layered concept that the digital media has been trying to pull off for years. The irony is, in the past the technology was the stumbling block, now the sky is the limit on what is possible, and the challenge lies with the content producers who must (on some level at least) raise their game to Tolkien's level.

The huge shift in the way we consume - and want to consume - our media has been swift and decisive. Online newspapers went from being primitive receptacles of knowledge to the first mainstream adopters of interactive content. Now videos, 3D imagery and podcasting are considered the norm. The rise of the tablet and subsequent newspaper and magazine apps cemented this. Although if you look back just two years ago, notable publisher of Rolling Stone, Jann Wenner, managed to alienate a hefty chunk of his readers by steadfastly refusing to take the digital revolution seriously.

As consumers we're clamouring for these new delivery methods... and the market is reacting. Entertainers like Ricky Gervais are launching their own YouTube channels to showcase brand new material; Howard Stern, not only made the switch to satellite radio, but also runs a hugely successful on demand TV service; Kevin Smith started a podcast empire; traditional publishing houses such as Faber and Faber found success with their embryonic digital output... and online TV streaming services like Netflix are funding brand new shows the public want to see - and then releasing all the episodes in one go. The way we absorb our information has changed for the better and we're loving it.

Last year AUX Magazine, a Canadian title, launched the first fully interactive music magazine app. Its USP is the ability to deliver an immersive digital experience, utilising well researched pieces, interviews, videos and a range of interactive content that's streets ahead in terms of development. After only a year on the market it is leading the way in interactive app content and winning Digital Magazine Awards as it goes. The publisher, Ashley Carter, thinks that it's all about balance: "AUX didn't have a legacy print publication to consider like most magazines making the leap to digital, so we were free to approach content from an experimental perspective and work backwards into the guts of it. I think the reason it works is that we're careful not to let content suffer for the sake of interactivity or vice versa. We come from print backgrounds, that helps." 

It's also very telling that it was able to come at this from a completely fresh angle, an experimental perspective. It's this thinking that was at the core of Tolkein's work and is why so many people are getting excited about the potential of digital publishing. Today's authors have the opportunity to build something new, from scratch, completely un-tethered and deliver it in a way that has never been seen before. Digital publisher, Ashley Carter, thinks that:  "Every reading experience will become more interactive since the demand is there and we're quickly learning what's possible... but there will always be a place for a "flat" reading experience. If you go on vacation, everyone using a tablet poolside still looks like a jerk. Even the Jetsons probably read paperbacks on the beach. Books will stick around. Maybe not magazines, but books."

She's right of course; some things just don't fully work in the digital market (and not just poolside reading). A couple of months ago, Egmont Press released their new Winnie the Pooh app, which they (but unfortunately hardly anyone else) lauded as "sitting at the forefront of the digital revolution." Whilst the audio story is well put together, and the pictures by EH Shepherd are stunning, there is nothing new here and nothing to make a child sit up and take notice. It has been, perhaps unfairly described, as a glorified audiobook, a throwback to the 80s, but it does offer a range of biographies and other interesting content.

Another similarly poorly received app was the digital version of John Buchan's The 39 Steps, however, the publisher, Faber and Faber, has been excelling in other areas of their digital brand, notably with their collaborations with Touch Press, where they've developed exciting multi-platform apps for The Waste Land and Shakespeare's Sonnets. Here they have brought the works to life with filmed readings from famous actors and thrown a wealth of other features in with it. Perhaps an even bigger achievement however, is their treatment of War Horse - the 1982 novel by former Children's Laureate, Michael Morpurgo. It's a full on interactive experience involving audio readings from the author, stunning illustrations, music, interviews (with 34 experts), 3D tours, interactive timelines... and a live stage performance featuring original songs from John Tams and Barry Coope.

When you glance at what's available at the moment, the biggest successes have been from giving the right interactive treatment to pre-existing, high quality, source material. This is of course to be applauded. Turning a new audience onto books like this is brilliant, but what are really exciting are the endless possibilities this technology creates for new types of storytelling and new ways of creating books. If Tolkien was producing Lord of the Rings today, he'd have had a field day and we'd be treated to a smörgåsbord of interactive maps, video back stories, animated abridgements, music videos - perhaps even a tutorial on learning Elvish... all downloadable to a tablet, Kindle or reading device in seconds.

This is exactly the kind of thinking the industry needs and it can't be long before a new author hooks up with the right publishing house and delivers us an opus; a cohesive whole, with the perfect balance of unique storytelling and interactive content that captures the imagination of a whole new generation.  I just wonder how long we'll have to wait... somewhere out there, there must be another Tolkien.

 

This article was co-written by Kathryn Cave, Editor at IDG Connect and Nick Madden, Group Head of Content at MBI International & Partners

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Comments

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Xi Sonenberg on August 30 2013

As a professional journalist, I find it amusing, that while you (somewhat loosely) liken Tolkien to digital content and connectivity, you overlook the man's feelings on technology in his lifetime. While he was still with us, Tolkien provided his loyal fans, via pressure by family and friends, with a few scarce recordings, read directly from his work, and these gems are an insight not only into how the author imagined his characters, but also in his personal and orthodox religious views. I recall reading a statement that before recording anything into a machine, he recited prayers, to ward off the evil of the machine itself, and his inherent beliefs on technology. Today, the idea of such a thing is absurd, but consider it from the mindset of a man who, born in 1892, served in the Great War, and lived through the wartime of the 1930s and 1940s, with his son stationed in South Africa. Victorian and Edwardian upbringing, combined with the observation that the benefits of technology are often outweighed by how they damage mankind as a whole, are often evident, and despite his own admission for a distaste of allegory, he could not entirely detach from the scenery of his lifetime. Now, he made these recordings in the 1960s, or perhaps very early 1970s, and sadly never made a full recording off any single volume of his work. Many of these were done as personal favours, not meant for the later sales made of them. Honestly, I think that had he been alive now, he might be appalled at the suggestion of digitally interactive content, and with the outcome of many external productions of his work. The Saul Zaentz Company would have, of course, welcomed any such innovation with open arms, but I feel that the author may have felt uneasy (at best) about it. I would, conversely, welcome an interactive Sindarin and Quenya language programme, probably best packaged with Tengwar and Cirth writing tutorials, for people that are otherwise too lazy to procure 'The Languages of Middle-Earth', or flip through the appendices of LotR. The linguistic dictionary components at least, have very interesting academic value, and I do not dispute that an interactive Middle-Earth database would be brilliant--it could even include the I.C.E. content, which is non-canonical--and be a fantastic seller. I merely doubt that Tolkien himself would have saluted the gesture.

no-images

Rlang on August 31 2013

I might start with Neal Stephenson...

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Randy Grein on August 31 2013

Professor Tolkien's enduring popularity has little to do with the digital revolution and everything to do with completeness of vision. He viewed artists as 'sub creators', those who imitated the greater creation of the world by god. (I don't have to be a Christian to acknowledge his strong beliefs.) His views on the art of sub creation are best articulated in the essay "On Fairy Stories", and to a lesser extent the story "Leaf by Niggle". The volume of work still being published is indicative of his work ethic, creating an entire world, and only then writing the story. While it would be wonderful having multimedia copies of his works with explanations and lessons (language lessons in particular would be fantastic) the sheer time involved in multimedia creation would make a daunting project even harder, and his under-appreciated perfectionism would likely have collapsed under the additional strain. The new media is still evolving, but until it is as easy as writing (itself not an easy task) it will continue to fall short of more traditional art forms. Be content with digital books and audio books in the meantime. Perhaps Christopher Lee (who portrayed Saruman in the movie) would consent to perform an audio book. I'd pay for that!

no-images

Michael York on August 31 2013

The big obstacle to such a creation is the time constraint. Tolkien took many years to compile and create this epic story. The archetypes pre-existed, and he incorporated them in his lengthy tale. Interesting the dichotomy between those who read the books, but don't like the movies, and vice versa. You can please some of the people some of the time... Immersive interactive compelling content is subjective to the individual, many just want the facts, many want to be entertained, many want to be enlightened. For me, "The Silmarillion" is the grandest of epics, which gives a narrative of the creation of all things, by the Music of Heaven, for some completely boring, for others the height of majesty, and wonder. Maybe the best content would be fully configurable to each, so that the method of consuming the content, would suit the taste of the individual.

no-images

J. N. Nielsen on September 01 2013

A very interesting take on the significance of Tolkien's achievement. One might also cite Wagner's music dramas as examples of pre-telecommunications synaesthesia. Few individuals are able to pull this off single-handedly. If we look at the example of film, usually there are many contributors -- writers, a director, actors, costume designers, set-dressers, etc. It is likely that the most successful models of contemporary synaesthesia for digital media will be based on the cinematic model, with many contributors sharing the same vision. Only, this doesn't happen all too often. We all know, to our regret, how many bad films are made.

no-images

Marci Rodgers on September 01 2013

It was great to see an article today on Tolkien and his influence on the digital age. In fact the founder of my company did all the digital graphics work for the Lord of the Rings movies. Now he has leveraged that technology for a successful IT startup GreenButton. I'd love the opportunity for you to speak with him about leveraging all that digital imaging work into a company that provides HPC solutions on the cloud.

no-images

Andrew James Riemer on September 03 2013

If you want others who create entire worlds, complete with pantheons, maps, legends, poetry, and a collection of memorable characters, just find an old school Dungeon Master who ran his (or her) own campaign. I mean, really, the people with that level of creativity are out there. Many may have no desire to become published, and are happy sharing their virtual worlds with their friends. Some may have no interested in shaping the digital age, and may be in careers that have nothing to do with our technological environment. Yet others are out there who could contribute in the ways you envision. Perhaps those who are seeking such talent should improve the skills required to find it. Those brilliant minds are out there. You just need to identify them and convince them that their skills are applicable to your digital needs. I don't know a single creative person who wouldn't leap at such an opportunity.

no-images

Xi Sonenberg on August 30 2013

As a professional journalist, I find it amusing, that while you (somewhat loosely) liken Tolkien to digital content and connectivity, you overlook the man's feelings on technology in his lifetime. While he was still with us, Tolkien provided his loyal fans, via pressure by family and friends, with a few scarce recordings, read directly from his work, and these gems are an insight not only into how the author imagined his characters, but also in his personal and orthodox religious views. I recall reading a statement that before recording anything into a machine, he recited prayers, to ward off the evil of the machine itself, and his inherent beliefs on technology. Today, the idea of such a thing is absurd, but consider it from the mindset of a man who, born in 1892, served in the Great War, and lived through the wartime of the 1930s and 1940s, with his son stationed in South Africa. Victorian and Edwardian upbringing, combined with the observation that the benefits of technology are often outweighed by how they damage mankind as a whole, are often evident, and despite his own admission for a distaste of allegory, he could not entirely detach from the scenery of his lifetime. Now, he made these recordings in the 1960s, or perhaps very early 1970s, and sadly never made a full recording off any single volume of his work. Many of these were done as personal favours, not meant for the later sales made of them. Honestly, I think that had he been alive now, he might be appalled at the suggestion of digitally interactive content, and with the outcome of many external productions of his work. The Saul Zaentz Company would have, of course, welcomed any such innovation with open arms, but I feel that the author may have felt uneasy (at best) about it. I would, conversely, welcome an interactive Sindarin and Quenya language programme, probably best packaged with Tengwar and Cirth writing tutorials, for people that are otherwise too lazy to procure 'The Languages of Middle-Earth', or flip through the appendices of LotR. The linguistic dictionary components at least, have very interesting academic value, and I do not dispute that an interactive Middle-Earth database would be brilliant--it could even include the I.C.E. content, which is non-canonical--and be a fantastic seller. I merely doubt that Tolkien himself would have saluted the gesture.

no-images

Rlang on August 31 2013

I might start with Neal Stephenson...

no-images

Randy Grein on August 31 2013

Professor Tolkien's enduring popularity has little to do with the digital revolution and everything to do with completeness of vision. He viewed artists as 'sub creators', those who imitated the greater creation of the world by god. (I don't have to be a Christian to acknowledge his strong beliefs.) His views on the art of sub creation are best articulated in the essay "On Fairy Stories", and to a lesser extent the story "Leaf by Niggle". The volume of work still being published is indicative of his work ethic, creating an entire world, and only then writing the story. While it would be wonderful having multimedia copies of his works with explanations and lessons (language lessons in particular would be fantastic) the sheer time involved in multimedia creation would make a daunting project even harder, and his under-appreciated perfectionism would likely have collapsed under the additional strain. The new media is still evolving, but until it is as easy as writing (itself not an easy task) it will continue to fall short of more traditional art forms. Be content with digital books and audio books in the meantime. Perhaps Christopher Lee (who portrayed Saruman in the movie) would consent to perform an audio book. I'd pay for that!

no-images

Michael York on August 31 2013

The big obstacle to such a creation is the time constraint. Tolkien took many years to compile and create this epic story. The archetypes pre-existed, and he incorporated them in his lengthy tale. Interesting the dichotomy between those who read the books, but don't like the movies, and vice versa. You can please some of the people some of the time... Immersive interactive compelling content is subjective to the individual, many just want the facts, many want to be entertained, many want to be enlightened. For me, "The Silmarillion" is the grandest of epics, which gives a narrative of the creation of all things, by the Music of Heaven, for some completely boring, for others the height of majesty, and wonder. Maybe the best content would be fully configurable to each, so that the method of consuming the content, would suit the taste of the individual.

no-images

J. N. Nielsen on September 01 2013

A very interesting take on the significance of Tolkien's achievement. One might also cite Wagner's music dramas as examples of pre-telecommunications synaesthesia. Few individuals are able to pull this off single-handedly. If we look at the example of film, usually there are many contributors -- writers, a director, actors, costume designers, set-dressers, etc. It is likely that the most successful models of contemporary synaesthesia for digital media will be based on the cinematic model, with many contributors sharing the same vision. Only, this doesn't happen all too often. We all know, to our regret, how many bad films are made.

no-images

Marci Rodgers on September 01 2013

It was great to see an article today on Tolkien and his influence on the digital age. In fact the founder of my company did all the digital graphics work for the Lord of the Rings movies. Now he has leveraged that technology for a successful IT startup GreenButton. I'd love the opportunity for you to speak with him about leveraging all that digital imaging work into a company that provides HPC solutions on the cloud.

no-images

Andrew James Riemer on September 03 2013

If you want others who create entire worlds, complete with pantheons, maps, legends, poetry, and a collection of memorable characters, just find an old school Dungeon Master who ran his (or her) own campaign. I mean, really, the people with that level of creativity are out there. Many may have no desire to become published, and are happy sharing their virtual worlds with their friends. Some may have no interested in shaping the digital age, and may be in careers that have nothing to do with our technological environment. Yet others are out there who could contribute in the ways you envision. Perhaps those who are seeking such talent should improve the skills required to find it. Those brilliant minds are out there. You just need to identify them and convince them that their skills are applicable to your digital needs. I don't know a single creative person who wouldn't leap at such an opportunity.

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