Report: Byte Confluence 2020

Posted by rebekah on 10 February 2020, in Event reports, News

Words by Chris Russell, photos by Keith Forster.

Byte The Book founder Justine Solomons and Programme Director, Michael Kowalski welcoming everyone to Byte Confluence 2020.

Byte The Book’s much-anticipated Confluence returned to Academy London on 7th February, and the mood was palpable from the start. “I’m so excited, I can’t speak,” said Byte founder Justine Solomons in her welcome speech, setting the tone for a full day of talks, workshops and networking covering everything from audio and AI to data, games and graphic novels, supported by a fabulous list of partners: Ingram Spark, Vearsa, Shorthand, Rumpus Animation, Banjo Robinson, Bookswarm, Cameron Publicity & Marketing, Circular Software,  Hybert Design, Tapocketa and our very generous hosts Academy London, Google.

Maja Thomas, opening our ears to audio

The floor was opened by Maja Thomas, Chief Innovation Officer at Hachette, whose presentation Voice Of The Future addressed the unstoppable power of audio. “Earshare is the new marketshare,” she began, revealing that digital audiobooks have become the fastest growing arm of the publishing industry at a time when other formats have plateaued. She pointed to the form’s practical nature as the key to its success: “Audio not only helps people finish more books, it allows them to carry out other activities while doing so.” Podcasts are, of course, a major component in the rise of audio, with consumption more than doubling over the last four years, and part of their appeal is their power to effectively — but cheaply — test intellectual property on an audience. “It’s like a beta-testing space for IP,” she said, citing the popularity of true-crime story Dirty John, which began life as a podcast and eventually spawned a high-profile Netflix series starring Connie Britton. 

The brilliant David Mansfield, author of The Monday Revolution inspiring the crowd

Maja concluded with some forecasts for the future, predicting that podcasts will continue to become slicker and more professional, with more premium content moving behind paywalls. She also foresaw a rise in the application of AI interactivity, asserting that “rather than spending our time typing on keyboards on tapping on phones, we will simply talk to an omnipresent AI”. Smart speakers will help to alleviate loneliness, telling us stories and even talking dirty (“You can now flirt with your Braun coffee maker instead of your brawny barista,” she joked), and when we check into hotel rooms, we will be asked if we’re hungry, too hot or would like to hear some music. “Voice is enabling a fundamental shift in human behaviour,” stressed Maja, “similar in impact to the one from web to mobile. Voice frees us from screens.” Conversely, there are plenty of developments that we should be worried about, from the reality-bending phenomenon of ‘deep fakes’ to the ever more invasive behaviour of the big tech companies. “Before, Amazon knew when you bought the popcorn. Now, with Alexa, they can hear when you’re eating the popcorn.” 

Andrew Stuck from The Museum of Walking, soundpieces on the Boundaries Stage

As Maja completed her opening address, Confluence split across its three main spaces: the Business Stage, the Boundaries Stage and the Dark Stage. On Boundaries, Andrew Stuck from the Museum Of Walking told stories of audio-related experimentation dating back to the mid-Nineties. Since long before the technology was able to do justice to his imagination, Andrew has been experimenting with operatic audio tours, immersive poetry events, sound walks and more. “I’m a grandaddy of podcasts,” he said, “I’ve been doing it since we had dial-up modems.” This led to a discussion on the mysterious relationship between walking and creativity, with Andrew citing research by the academic Jody Rosenblatt-Naderi who found that it takes eleven minutes for a person to achieve so-called ‘metronome walking’, where the brain “enters a state of being, and your mind is cleared”.

An audience on the Business Stage that can't quite get enough.

Back on the Business Stage, Sally Foote from Go Compare explored how brands can maximise the success of their products by listening to the stories their customers tell them. “The number one reason products fail,” she asserted, “is lack of customer research and product testing.” The Colgate frozen lasagna, for instance, tanked because apparently it hadn’t occurred to anyone to ask whether people actually wanted their toothpaste provider to furnish them with Italian ready meals (they didn’t). “But it’s not quite as simple as just asking questions,” elucidated Sally. “I’m sure Colgate did some level of market testing, but I’ve seen myself how easy it is to misunderstand what customers are telling you, or simply to ask the wrong questions.” So what, then, is the answer? “You have to test your understanding of the problem before you test the solution,” explainedSally, citing an example from her time at Photobox, when the AI looked at automating the creation of photo albums to save their customers time. “The software functionality we created, called SmartFill, worked brilliantly… but our customers had no desire to use it. They actually wanted to spend time curating and arranging photos — it was only the boring stuff we needed to automate.” Crucially, Sally concluded, your customers may not always be able to articulate what they’re thinking, so it’s part of a brand’s job to interpret consumer feedback and respond accordingly. “Don’t be lazy. Your customers won’t give you the answers; you have to take the stories they tell you and work them out for yourself.”

Sharing information in the Partner Zone where sponsors could demonstrate product and discuss business opportunities.

New technologies were, unsurprisingly, a much-talked about topic at Confluence 2020, with writer and editor Yen Ooi discussing the rising popularity of gaming, specifically the ‘gamification’ of society. “Gamification is a new term in business,” she said, “but the concept has actually been around as long as there’s been desperate parents with toddlers. It’s how you get them to brush their teeth (‘Who can do it the fastest?’) or eat their dinner (‘Here comes the spoon train!’).” Essentially it’s the process of making tedious activities fun, in pursuit of the common good — such as in the case of Stockholm’s ‘Piano Stairs’, a touch-activated stairway which draws people away from the subway escalator and ‘tricks’ them into exercising. An inspired idea, but not one without its drawbacks. “You always have to consider who the potential victims might be,” advised Yen. “In the case of the Piano Stairs, the victims are those who can’t climb stairs, for health or mobility reasons, and who may end up feeling left out.”

Peter Noble and Neil Gardner teaching us about Audio books on the Dark Stage.

Meanwhile, author of Rage Inside The Machine Robert Elliott Smith examined the misuse and misunderstanding of science in the media, from The New Yorker’s questionable claim that AI-generated journalism can now pass as human to The Atlantic’s spurious assertion that Google’s AlphaGo ‘imitates human intuition’ (it doesn’t, contested Robert). We see books being released such as David J. Gunkel’s Robot Rights, which seems to overlook the fact that many marginalised groups of human beings are yet to enjoy equal rights, while the ways in which the digital world is immiserating workers in the real world — from poor conditions in Amazon’s warehouses to Deliveroo’s so-called ‘dark kitchens’ — are almost too many to number. Ultimately, said Robert, AI is a tool, and we mustn’t forget that. “We couldn’t build houses without hammers and nails, but we don’t credit them with the architecture.” Finally, when asked by an audience member whether we should be afraid of where AI is heading, Robert’s answer was grave. “Yes, absolutely. We should be terribly afraid. Look at where algorithmic media has got us in politics. We have to realise the difference between human intelligence and quantitative intelligence, and we have to do it soon.”

Robert Elliott Smith giving his talk on AI and prejudice: A science/fiction story based entirely on real events.

Despite this hint of gloom, the overall mood of the day was overwhelmingly upbeat. On the Dark Stage, podcaster Sam Delaney’s boundless energy and DIY ethos inspired a room-full of would-be casters. “When we started our podcast,” he said, “we thought we’d just say what we wanted as if no one was listening, and it was that spirit that made us popular. Now we’re doing national tours in big venues and selling merchandise, which is crazy considering this started as the least thought-through thing I’ve ever done.” Perhaps the most exciting element of the podcasting phenomenon is that an idea can go from conception to production to distribution in a matter of days, with vanishingly small start-up costs. “It’s like the spirit of fanzines in the old days,” reflected Sam, “because you can get your content online so quickly. It’s all about spontaneity. Don’t hang around.” Back in the world of traditional media, programme commissioner Kate Ansell offered some amusing insights into the world of BBC commissioning, based on her experience working on flagship shows such as Panorama and One Born Every Minute. “My CV’s a bit random,” she said, “but then so is daytime commissioning… so the BBC thought I was the perfect fit.” When asked how she picks which shows to commission, and whether she ever feels inundated by content, Kate pointed out that it is simply her job to fill a gap, and it is normally very obvious which shows will fit and which won’t. “It’s the thing we don’t have that we want,” she said, in reference to how the success of a particular format often inspires a flood of copycat pitches. “Not the thing we already have.”

Dan Kieran looking back on the stories we tell about ourselves that define who we become.

Confluence was brought to a close by Dan Kieran, CEO of Unbound, with his thought-provoking presentation The Surfboard: Rewriting The Story Of Your Life. “We are the stories we tell ourselves we are,” Dan began, “so we can change the story of who we can become.” He went on to discuss his fear of flying, which has been with him since childhood, revealing how his phobia forced him into a lifelong love affair with ‘slow travel’, from taking a train to Poland to crossing England in a milk float. “We don’t travel anymore, we just arrive. But when you slow down and are forced to view things in a different way, you have a richer experience.” He explained how our brains are physically restructured by our behaviours, comparing our repeated thoughts to a person crossing a cornfield, over and over, until the path becomes a ditch and it is no longer possible to travel outside of it. He eventually conquered his fear of flying through cognitive behavioural therapy, and the chance discovery that the design of surfboards was based on airplane wings prompted him to take a course in surfboard craftsmanship in Cornwall, despite the fact that he had never surfed in his life. Over a seven-day period, he worked obsessively on his board, learning new skills and finessing his creation until it became a work of art. “Conquering my fear of flying was abstract,” he said, “but the surfboard was a physical thing. I look at it now and see how much I cared about it, how it literally changed my mind. It’s undeniable evidence that I’m capable of re-writing the story about myself. It’s there, and I can touch it.”

The Reciprocity Wall, where Confluence attendees were encouraged to stick up requests for help and to offer answers and help in response to those requests. A sticky-note networking tool of kindness.

With that, the presentations were done, the bar was open and the networking continued into the evening. From technology to the art of self-discovery, Confluence had been a whistle-stop tour across not just the book world, and the industries that surround it, but around the very concept of storytelling itself.

Refreshments and networking in the Tiki Bar.

Thank you to all of our wonderful speakers and our amazing partners. What a fabulous day.

If you enjoyed this report and want to keep up with the latest happenings in publishing as well as network with publishers and authors alike keep yourself posted by visiting our events page here. You can join us from £36 a quarter here.

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