An International Conference
October 8-10, 1999
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Digital Books, Digital Teaching

Empowering Authors in the Digital Age
Speaker: Bob Stein, Night Kitchen

[This is an edited summary not a complete transcript.]
Bob Stein: I think it is great that John Maeda and I are on the same panel today because we represent radically different approaches to the expressive powers of the computer. In a way, we're working on completely different problems. I'm trying to tackle the problem of what we can do now. 

Say you want to combine audio, video and text in a form accessible to other people. My guess is that there aren't more than a few thousand people on the earth today who can take such content and assemble it in a fashion that is both graphically elegant from a computing point of view, and useful from the reader's point of view. In effect, then, only a very small number of people are able to express themselves on a computer. I don't find that to be acceptable from a philosophical point of view. 

I want digital culture to be as rich from the point of view of diversity as analog culture. Until John Maeda and the people he works with over the next N years, whether that is twenty or two hundred, develop tools that make it easy for all of us to start with a blank page and be creative, my project is a stop-gap solution.  I don't say that apologetically. We have different goals. Realistically, there are not a lot of people who even understand computing as John does, and it is going to take a long time to get from where we are now to where everyone can go to a blank digital page and express themselves seriously and competently.

At Night Kitchen, we created TK3  as an interim measure; it is both a new format for electronic documents and a tool for making them. TK3 documents combine computing power with the visual elegance long associated with the printed page.

To design this software, we asked:  what are the 25 things a book has to do really well to be useful to a reader?  And then we made it easy to make a book that does those 25 things. We did constrain functionality substantially in order to make it possible for even the casual computer user to create a variety of documents. What we don't constrain at all is graphic design. We supply templates to make a book. Everything about the template can be changed, and users can decide to exclude various features or to start from a completely blank page. 

I suspect that 95% of what is produced on TK3 will be created with preexisting templates. But publishing companies, people doing commercial work and artists are likely to want to start from scratch and create their own custom templates.


TK3 was designed with as much attention to the experience of the user or reader of the finished product as to the experience of the person making the document. It is easy to use because of its extensive use of dialog windows and its drag-and-drop interface. TK3 documents can be distributed over the Internet or on fixed media such as CD-ROM and DVD-ROM, and they run on any platform. TK3 automatically provides an extremely useful set of user features, including a notebook, stickies, highlighters, audio/video clip editors, and powerful navigation tools. 

The software is available on line for preview use on the Night Kitchen website We expect to release Version 1.0 officially in September of 2000. There is a tour of the software available online. Sample books that demonstrate aspects of the software can also be downloaded from the site.
I failed Physics for Poets. I am not a programmer.  My software aims to make the expressive and hypertextual powers of the computer available to ordinary mortals who have no programming skills but who have something important and perhaps unique to communicate.

Compiled by Mary Hopper and David Thorburn

Digital Books, Digital Teaching
John Maeda, New Media Design
media in transition   agenda speakers summaries papers dialogue