Written by Tea Uglow, creative director for Google's Creative Lab in Sydney, "A Universe Explodes" is an innovative approach to digital books using proof of ownership backed by Ethereum to allow the book to be edited and then shared to a new owner. By the time the final shared copy of the digital book is distributed it will be unrecognizable, with completely different content.
"The story erodes with each owner," said Uglow on her blog, "and through this process a notional value of the work increases. In the same way as any book will eventually fall apart, accumulate marks and fade."
"A Universe Explodes" was published by Visual Editions in April 2017, and may be the first digital book of its kind – collectively owned on a blockchain. Initially, one original copy of the book is distributed to an owner. To share the book the owner is required to add one word and then remove two from each page. The owner can then publish their changes and share the book to the next owner with edits registered on the Ethereum Blockchain. The book can be shared a total of 100 times. The 20-page book contains 128 words per page, and ultimately, each of the 100 copies produced through the sharing will be unique. Due to the nature of the evolution of the book, each final copy will no longer contain the original content. Instead it will be comprised solely of words chosen by owners.
The project was pioneered by a partnership between Visual Editions, Impossible Labs, and Google's Creative Lab, which set out to play with the concept of ownership using a platform built atop the Ethereum blockchain.
Impossible Labs had to choose which blockchain to use and it decided to go with Ethereum, partly due to the nature of executable distributed code contracts (EDCCs), which provide enforced automatic execution once conditions for the contract are met.
A blog post from the Impossible Labs team goes into further detail as to how EDCCs manage the ownership of the digital edition:
"We wrote a smart contract that would manage the book ownership transfers, store and retrieve the changes and dedications as well as the owner names from the blockchain. In order to run, the smart contract needs gas (which is burned when smart contracts are executed, to essentially pay the network for the execution), so each contract is funded and manages those funds to ensure that owners have enough gas to make their changes. In the end, the remaining funds are transferred back to the contract creator."
On her blog, Uglow detailed the mechanism for sharing the book through a dedication. Once readers edit their copy of the book, they can dedicate the book to a friend, effectively sharing the book with them. The changes and version of the book, along with the name of the person who made the changes, are recorded to the blockchain, allowing anyone to go back and see what changes were made to which version, and by whom.
Interesting innovations in the field of literature continue to show use cases that scale beyond conventional thought – meaning that there are likely more applications for Ethereum-backed blockchain technology to be discovered.
Correction was made on April 27, 2017 after clarification came through from a developer on the project on the frequency of shares and the sharing process of the book.