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Ambient Literature – Bath Spa University

Ambient Literature

With a combination of desk-based and practice-led research and collaboration with a network of advisors, Ambient Literature aimed to establish literary experiences as exciting, useful and viable contributions to the data environment of the 'smart city'.

The Ambient Literature project was a research collaboration between Bath Spa University, the Digital Cultures Research Center (DCRC) and the Pervasive Media Studio at the University of West England (UWE), and the University of Birmingham. The project  received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

This project explored what might happen when data aspires to literary form. It asked how can situated literary experiences delivered through pervasive media systems can produce new forms of literary experience?

The research looked at the history of the book to establish how the physical situation of the reader has affected the nature of the writing itself – it then applied this historical understanding to thinking about how the reading situation is changing through pervasive and ubiquitous computing. The development of travel, urbanity and mobility through the 19th & early 20th Centuries produced a mobile reading market supplied in the UK, for instance, by the WH Smith book stall chain (1792) and later by the Penguin imprint for the easily affordable but literary pocket sized paperback (1935).

New Paradigms

Texts and reading practices have been an increasingly dense feature of urban life for the past three hundred years. The 'solitary reading' paradigm of the private collection or university library is actually a comparatively minor part of the history of reading. Coffee houses, newspapers, handbills, fly posters, letters, and signage have all been part of the daily experience of the city. We have extended this range in the past thirty years, first with the Walkman (and the potential not only for mobile music but also for literary text to be delivered on the move), and now with portable screens (plus audio) extending this range of tools once more. Experiences of text interweave themselves into our daily lives with a bewildering promiscuity.

Despite the dominance of the solitary reading model, the city has always been a text-mediated experience. Since 2012, these literary modes have been available in the seamless continuity of Amazon's Whisper sync Kindle service that makes it possible for the user to switch between text reading and voice narration in over 45000 titles that have now been recorded. Our reading may now occur in the context of urban information systems that are dynamic, responding to what people do; they integrate embodied and imaginary experiences, material and mediating objects. In short they increase our opportunities for new forms of reading and listening experience. The research drew upon performance, audio walks, and creative writing to commission three new works by contemporary authors that aimed to demonstrate the power of situated literary experience. The Ambient Literature author had the potential to produce work that became a part of the unscripted shared material world. They were able to produce an encounter between the reader and their environment where the immediate surroundings became the stage on which the story played out.

There were three principle modes of investigation. Desk based research which surveyed the overlap between the literary and the locative; secondly practice led research in which we commissioned works that experimentally tested the hypotheses emerging from the desk based research; and third, collaboration with a network of advisors who both contributed to the knowledge base and articulated our findings through their industry relationships. The method built on Bath Spa’s increasing expertise in the field of creative writing and technology in partnership with the experience of the DCRC’s work on the REACT Creative Economy Hub in terms of building a learning conversation for the inquiry across academic and applied domains."


We’ve been working with pervasive media for over a decade, and are increasingly interested in how literary forms can be brought into an emerging field. The Ambient Literature proposal also drew on the REACT Hub’s work with creative industries and fast-turnaround experimental projects.


  • To establish literary experiences as an exciting, useful and viable contribution to the data environment of the 'smart city'. (see BIS Background Paper – Smart Cities, Oct 13)
  • To establish the idea of Ambient Literature as the name for a range of writing and reading practices appropriate to pervasive and ubiquitous computing platforms which deliver situated literary experiences.
  • To establish a flexible set of frameworks, models and principles for authors seeking to write for readers situated in particular environments.
  • To establish a robust platform and associated workflow for publishers and associated content industries to adopt for future creative and commercial development.

This project had pathways to impact built into its process; strand three of the research was a partnership conversation where we involved our partners and advisory board in a dialogue that started to promote the research in the publishing industry as it developed.

External Participation

We secured advisory board participation from key players in the digital publishing industry, The Literary Platform, Penguin/Random House, Hachette and Unbound who also benefited from the technical and design expertise of Richard Hull of Calvium, who worked with us here in a research capacity. The three practice led projects were the main focus for impact, each was available to read/listen in public and each had its own launch & PR campaign. These new digital publications were evidential for publishers in offering proof of the creative and commercial potential in emergent markets.

Part of the project was be the evaluation of the Ambient Literature works which was used in both the academic and the industry facing publications. These evaluations produced compelling case studies, which we were able to use in dialogue with the publishing industry at bookfairs and at our final London event. The project also held 10 public seminars which were the milestone for the presentation of work in progress findings, guest speakers and partner presentations: each of these produced blog content that produced attention through the social media networks of the team and their partners. Our PDRA team maintained the projects’ social media presence. The public seminar sessions pulled in new research on contemporary reading practices as well as outstanding examples of contemporary publishing practice from the field (eg Bath Spa’s Visiting Professor and Observer Columnist Naomi Alderman, author of the successful story/fitness app Zombies! Run, and Comma Press who run the geo literary app Lit Nav).

Public Events

The project held three major public events, at launch, at interim findings and at end of project reporting. The first was an industry facing event in London; the second was in Bristol, aimed at sharing the work in progress with a wide range of academic and industry stakeholders built around presentations from Eli Horowitz and Neil Gaiman, and the final event launched the industry facing report. We used our advisory board to build a communications network appropriate to establishing the project as an exciting and key part of the emergent digital publishing landscape."

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