The book has turned the tables on the critic as Dutch art director Thijs Biersteker exhibits the world’s first temperamental, judgmental volume. A prototype by the Moore agency in Amsterdam, its contents are not of general interest, being the annual publication of the Art Directors Club, Netherlands. But the cover has a lot of spine: if its facial recognition software finds the reader in a negative mood, it stays shut. Unreasonably happy readers are also closed out, no matter if they are naturally goofy or on drugs.
The project, titled “The Cover that Judges You”, is an unusual application of the Arduino circuit board that its creators could not have anticipated. Arduino is a microcontroller board and an associated open source programming environment that has become wildly popular with hobbyists, inventors and techies venturing beyond classical computing to toy with robotics and context-aware systems. Essentially, while a computer is designed to interact with data supplied by other computers, and is quarantined from the physical world, Arduino projects interact directly with the world, receiving data from sensors and reacting with decisions or motor actions.
A facial recognition system in Biersteker’s book reads the emotional state of the reader and a positive result releases a hasp on the cover. In the words of its creator, who designs communications for corporates like Apple and Nike when he’s not playing techno-semantic games like this, the book “is human and approachable hi-tech”. It’s technological black humour, actually, telling the critic where he gets off while pushing the idea of interactivity to a surreal limit.
Just a decade ago, interactivity was seen to be the future of all communications, the natural mode of the man-machine interface. “Let me tell you a story”, the foundation of the textual arts, had been elevated to “let’s all build a story”. Like so many good things, this concept dates back to the Sixties, when people began to intercut communications like poetry and films to make new patchwork texts. You can do something similar with your TV remote by switching channels randomly while recording the output. In the process, you will also appreciate why the popularity of this form of art was short-lived: there is very little chance of a coherent text developing by intercutting an art film, an Oriya soap, tips for kerbside punters, a cricket match, your horoscope, a high-decibel news discussion and a body spray ad on a children’s channel. A mashup like that renews respect for the traditional architecture of a beginning, a middle and an end.
Technology also made it easy to play with books. It’s fairly trivial to write a program which gives a reader command of the story line. You only have to provide drop-down choices at traditional breakpoints like the crisis, where life becomes doom-laden for unforeseen reasons, and the resolution, where they cancel each other out in an unforeseen fashion and the sun shines again. Now, “The Cover that Judges You” has played with the only element of the book that remained untested — its personal choice to be read, or not. Wonder what it does when it’s in an ambivalent mood, though. Does it go by its own blurbs, and open the cover despite reservations?