A brief history of Diffusion
Diffusion began life back in 1999 as a response to the increasing difficulty that I was having in distributing the books and journals I was then publishing – both for Proboscis and for the Royal College of Art‘s Computer Related Design Research Studio. The bookselling world had been changing rapidly in the previous few years – from the collapse of the net book agreement to the increasing consolidation of bookshops into chains and closure of independent outlets and distributors. These shifts affected the practice of bookselling too – large chains became less willing to stock niche publications and ordering became computerised across the chain rather than by buyers in individual shops with responsibility for specific subjects. In short, our publications were becoming harder for our readers to find and more expensive to print, warehouse and distribute.
Working for an interaction design research lab and having previously investigated the nascent printing-on-demand systems then available, it occurred to me that it would be possible to create an ‘eBook’ that could be downloaded from the internet and printed out on home printers to be folded into a paper book format. I was also skeptical that electronic books would take off in the form that was then being touted – who would want an ugly device with a small screen and poor resolution costing hundreds of pounds, and then have to pay for the ‘books’ to read on it? It seemed so odd considering the obvious pleasure and tactile enjoyment that people derive from handling physical books, as well as their relative low cost, to replace them (as was being widely prophesied) with a much poorer experience.
Diffusion then became a research project to devise a paper folding and layout format that could be used to create small files using Adobe’s PDF file format. A conversation with an officer in the Arts Council of England’s Combined Arts department led to a funding proposal and grant to develop the format and a first series of commissioned publications – Performance Notations. In the Autumn of 1999 Paul Farrington (my design assistant at the RCA) and I set down to develop the format. Over the next six months we looked at a number of ideas before Paul devised the unique Diffusion folding format (experts at the British Library informed us later that they had nothing similar in their collection). The first series of eBooks was completed and published in September 2000.
From this beginning we began to develop ideas for many different uses that the eBooks could have, but lack of time, funding and other commitments meant that Diffusion developed slowly. With further assistance from the Arts Council’s Collaborative Arts Dept, we developed and published the design schematics for the eBooks as a way of ‘open sourcing’ the format in Spring 2002 (with the help of Nima Falatoori). However we quickly realised that very few people would be able to benefit from them as they needed some graphic design skills to interpret and make use of, not to mention access to costly professional desktop publishing software (such as Adobe InDesign or QuarkXPress). This meant that very few of the people we thought might make most use of Diffusion could do so, as they would not likely be designers themselves.
So in 2003 I began researching whether we could create our own software application that would enable people to create eBooks simply and without needing graphic design expertise. I discovered the Reportlab open source software solution for creating PDF files and a summer intern from Kings College London’s computer science department (Diab Al-Kudairi) developed a working proof-of-concept prototype for the Diffusion Generator which we demonstrated at the People Inspired innovation conference in September 2003 (held at BT’s Adastral Park research campus). It then took a while to find a programmer who could use the prototype to develop a proper application, and in Spring 2004 I was introduced to Phil Ayres, who was teaching at the Bartlett School of Achitecture and developing a python-based intranet for the school. Phil soon began to develop a framework combining Zope, the Plone content management system and Reportlab. A first stage prototype was tested from March to June 2006, followed by a second stage in November 2006. The current prototype (stage 3) is in private ‘beta’ testing and has been used extensively during the 2007 case study residencies, which have been ably facilitated by Karen Martin, who also developed the new diffusion website.
Our next aims for Diffusion are to advance the Generator from its current state towards being a public online service and to focus on creative projects using it in the developing world.
London, November 2007