Among the many interesting questions Tom Lutz asked me in 2003 was this: "Have you ever thought of publishing Idle Theory?"
Of course, what he meant was properly publishing it as a hardback or paperback book. And I replied that I'd never been able to think of any publisher that would accept something as far out as Idle Theory.
But, in reality, I have published Idle Theory. I've published it on the World Wide Web. And people read it, sometimes very closely.
There was a time, in the early 1990s, when I started wanting to publish Idle Theory. I felt that it had grown big enough and clear enough to merit publication. But I couldn't see who would ever publish it. It simply didn't seem to belong in any obvious category of thought. And, furthermore, whenever I thought about a book, I wanted to be able to include computer programmes with it, perhaps as a CD or something. The whole thing looked completely impossible. I was facing a brick wall. When I started to begin to piece the thing together, at the back of my mind was the constant thought: "Nobody's ever going to publish this."
But then, in 1995 or so, someone told me about the Web. "You can publish your ideas on the web," he said. "You can also publish computer simulation models," he added. And I began to investigate, and write HTML and Java, and began to realise that a strange and hitherto unimaginable publication route had just opened up. The brick wall I'd been staring at for years had collapsed. By publishing on the web, I could get round the problem of trying to convince some publisher to publish Idle Theory, and avoid the capital costs of a print run, and acquire total editorial control, and furthermore embed computer simulation models in the text, along with images and animations and sounds.
Of course, I wouldn't make a penny out of it. But I never saw Idle Theory as a money spinner. It was simply an idea with which I had been intermittently obsessed for ages, and which I wanted (and perhaps even felt some kind of duty) to set out in public somewhere, to tell people about. All I wanted to do was to make the idea public. I didn't really even care whether anyone read it or not.
And so, in 1998, when I had very little money-earning work, I spent a lot of my time writing the first draft of Idle Theory. And I pretty rapidly realised that publishing it on the web freed it from the linear structure - Chapter I to Chapter XX - of books. And so Idle Theory is tree-structured rather than having a linear beginning and ending. All of which suited Idle Theory, because it didn't really have a beginning, and it certainly had no end. Writing it as a branching tree, I was freed to add on extra bits wherever and whenever I wanted, just by growing the tree a bit. There was no need to insert new chapters.
I also felt that there was no need to write in a dry, abstract, 'academic' style. I wanted to write using a simple and unadorned English. And I wanted it to have a thread of humour to it. In many ways, Idle Theory is the Ph.D. thesis I never wrote. But since I've long since ceased to be a postgraduate at the University of Bristol, there is absolutely no need to adopt the academic style.
And so, since its publication in 1998-1999, I've been adding essays to Idle Theory, as time and inclination have permitted. The essay rather than chapter structure grew out of the tree structure. I felt it was best to try to express one or two ideas in any essay, and allow the tree structure to hold the 'leaves' of essays together. And furthermore, being someone who can only hold a single thought in my head for a short period of time, writing an essay, usually in one day, fitted my way of thinking and writing. Idle Theory would grow like a jigsaw puzzle, with a few pieces connected here and there. It was a jigsaw puzzle that I always knew I could never complete, but might be able to put in just enough for the 'big picture' to become a little bit visible.
When I published Idle Theory on the Web, I didn't try very hard to advertise it. I just registered it with a few search engines, and added a hit counter, and watched entirely unsurprised when hardly anybody came to look at it, and absolutely nobody responded to it. And when, in 2001, the hit counter lapsed, I didn't even bother to replace it. Nobody was reading Idle Theory, and I wasn't at all surprised.
It was only when in 2002 or so that I started to get emails praising Idle Theory that I woke up, put a new hit counter on Idle Theory, and registered it as http://idletheory.info, did various other things, and started investigating who had been taking an interest in it, and re-reading and correcting it.
The fact that I could, at any time, correct what I had written also meant that Idle Theory would always be a work in progress. And this is why I usually date what I've written, and when I last edited it, so as to have people get some notion that it wasn't all written at once, and is still (perhaps) being edited and expanded. And while I can do this, I remain free to change my mind - and I do.
I think that one concern that an author might have is that the web is some sort of transient and temporary phenomenon, and that when the electricity runs out, it will all simply vanish into thin air - and if you want your ideas to be remembered, you should get them printed on paper, or better still vellum, or even better copper or even stone.
The more I think about this, the less I think it ever needed to be published on paper. The Web is quite simply a far better publication medium than printed paper. It's an innovation of the same or greater magnitude of that of Gutenberg and Caxton's printing presses. It allows anybody to publish anything. It will, of course, evolve and develop. But, since it doesn't rely on pulped wood from our diminishing forests, I think that the future of all publishing lies along this path. If at present its texts can only be read on huge and unwieldy computer screens, it is only going to be a matter of time before you can fold up and keep those screens in your back pocket, and read them just like you read paperbacks. Probably back in Gutenberg's day, a whole bunch of people were saying that this new-fangled printing press malarky would never catch on, and you could really only ultimately rely on the tried-and-tested, old-fashioned quill pen. But they were wrong. And they've been wrong for 500 years. And they remain wrong. So also with the Web. It's here to stay. It will change and develop, but it will always be here.
And publishing on the Web, Idle Theory can reproduce, in that the entire website can be downloaded as a zip file, and the zip file can be copied. In this manner, copies of Idle Theory quite separate from the website will exist.
Author: Chris Davis
First created: May 2006