Google employee Tea Uglow-authored digital book A Universe Explodes developed by product design company Impossible Labs and Editions At Play was released on April 4, to demonstrate the concept of digital ownership.
The book is unique and different to most digital books in many ways. Started as an Ethereum blockchain-based experiment, the original copy of the digital book can only be owned by 100 people. The original owners can then send the book to their friends, and the book can only be shared 100 times per owner. Therefore, in the end, there will only exist 10,000 copies of A Universe Explodes.
However, the original owners cannot just simply pass along the book to their friends. Before an owner can send his copy to a friend, the owner must remove two words and add one to each page of the 20-page book. Each page of the digital book contains 128 words. The idea is that when the book’s ownership is transferred a hundred times, the entire book would be unreadable because every single word on the book would have been replaced.
The project of Uglow, Impossible Labs, and Editions At Play has very little to do with the digital book itself. Rather, it focuses on demonstrating how digital ownership can work with an emerging technology as such as the blockchain.
Developers at Impossible Labs, who were tasked to develop a web-based application on top of the Ethereum blockchain network by Google, focused on utilizing smart contracts and timestamps to record the transfer of ownership in an immutable and decentralized blockchain or ledger.
Such precise registry of ownership enables everyone within the network and each owner of A Universe Explodes to find out who made changes to which edition of the digital book at what time or day of the year.
In a blog post, the Impossible Labs development team explained their decision to select Ethereum over other blockchain networks such as Bitcoin:
“We went for Ethereum. One of the main reasons was that it has built-in smart contracts and intelligence within the blockchain itself that eases the data storage and the transfer of ownership. Smart contracts are blockchain-based programmable contracts that do not only specify what happens after certain conditions are met (like traditional contracts), but also enforce the execution automatically.”
The utilization of Ethereum allowed the digital book to autonomously detect if a two-word replacement was made and a transfer of ownership was initiated by the original owner. The development team further explained that smart contracts were necessary to store and retrieve changes to the digital book so that the owners of the book can access revisions or changes based on accurate timestamps.
The primary goal of this project was to use an immutable and unalterable platform such as the Ethereum blockchain to eliminate the possibility of data manipulation and unauthorized change in ownership.
“Online we don’t ‘buy’ ownership. We hire. We buy a license to access, and the license we get is non-transferrable and often a bit wordy. In our first experiment with digital books; Editions at Play, Visual Editions and Google’s Creative Lab teamed up with Google Play to sell a license to access digital books — books that by their nature could not be printed out or held. The experiment was about the digital qualities of a book,” explained Uglow, who emphasized that the goal of the project was to define the concept of ownership and differentiate it from possession and access.