9/24/2011

... and the books will survive: a short walk to the future of books

(este artículo se ha escrito en inglés y español. El artículo en español puede encontrarse AQUÍ)
(Update: the slide deck is ready. Find it below!)

Introduction
For those of us that live the culture of books as something more than a container of information, these are amazing times. The arrival of the electronic book, as opposed to other electronic versions of cultural and entertainment elements as the musical record or the movie, has required a lot of time. Just a few days ago we were lamenting the loss of Michael Hart, founder of the Project Gutenberg, born in 1971 to offer the world a simple and efficient access to public domain electronic books. It's rained quite a lot since then.

But with the arrival of the Amazon Kindle e-reading device, and the addition in this and other reading devices of internet connectivity, everything just sped up. And 2010 was the key moment when the Apple iPad was introduced to the market. This, plus the growth of the number of smartphones worldwide, users started to realize that just the same way they were able to access their music (with Spotify or iTunes), their work and personal documents (with GMail or Evernote), or their daily news (via internet browsing), they could also do the same with their books.

Curiously enough, if one stops to read the comments pro and against these new types of reading devices, it can be seen that there is not so much different with respect to what has happened in other moments in time where the breakthrough of a new technology such as the roll, the codex, printing or the paperback format, caused numerous discussions about how this new disruptive element compromised the future of writing or of the book. I don't pretend to go into much detail here (for those interested I fully recommend the reading of books such as The Gutenberg Galaxy or Merchants of Culture), but it is important to recall, for example, how the french statement, Guillaume-Chrétien de Lamoignon de Malesherbes publicly said in the XVIIIth century that "printing transforms the citizen into an isolated human being." Of course, he was referring to how printed newspapers made pulpits, where news pieces were presented and commented, unnecessary.

A few centuries earler, just when the printing press and movable types made its appearance in Europe, the venetian judge Filippo di Strata already made clear than printing corrupted texts, as they were circulated as editions full of manufacturing errors, and were created only for commercial benefit. He even famously said that "Est virgo hec penna, meretrix est stampificata", that is, "The pen is a virgin, the printing press is a prostitute." Interesting enough that these same accusations reach the electronic book nowadays.

And we can go even further in time, when one of the eminent minds in history said that "[...] for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth." Yes, it was Socrates, or, better said, Plato who, in his work Phaedrus, put these words into the mouth of this genius.

In each epoch where there has been some type of humanistic, cultural or social revolution, there has also been fears about what would happen to the the book and/or its readers.

But the book has always survived, as it is the true and reliable representation of our stories, our experiences and knowledge. We can change the formats, the definitions, but never the essence of what a book is. As it is typicaly said, if the book didn't exist, we would have to invent it.

But then, what moment are we currently in? Just as television started being a radio with talking heads, we've been through a moment where an electronic book was basically a very exact representation of what we currently understand as a physical book: text, images, pages, etc. By itself this already provides very interesting characteristics, just as the ability to carry hundreds, thousands of books with the size of a notepad. But when the previously known as the poor brother of the book, namely the web page, is observed, one can see how the web has incredibly grown, providing readers features such as relationships among texts, contextual analysis, or previously inexistent business models based on the interest a writing or a piece of content causes in the big user mass that live in the global village. There is no doubt that the electronic book is still in its infancy.

And, among the many things that will surprise us in months or years, one is clear: the book is finishing its time on earth, and goes to the clouds. Not to disappear, but all the opposite. So it can be seen more easily, and from anywhere. So that every existing book can be reached as never before. It's a concept I call "Book as a Service".



But the potential this concept is much bigger than this limited and small name.

What's going to happen? That's the big question that fills books, blogs, conferences and coffee meetings. And I don't pretend to appear as an absolute expert here, but I truly believe there are three key elements, already among us, and that are built on top of the concept of "Book as a Service". These elements are the Conversation, the Discovery and the Openness.

Conversation
Conversation around books has always existed. In fact, conversations exist way before the book, the codex or even writing itself existed. It is very interesting how McLuhan opens the mind of the read in his book The Gutenberg Galaxy when considering how writing brought with it lots of cultural changes.

But it must be evident that when a person reads a book, she comments about it with her friends, colleagues and familiy. She might belong to a book club, or talking about the book can help in her "ligue" process (well, maybe in a pretty intellectual environment :) )

The existing limitation, though we just saw it as such a little while ago, is that this conversation is realized outside of the book. Only marginalia allowed us to have a more intimate relationship between the content of the book, our thoughts and the ones of other readers. It might sound a little preppy, but I am sure more than a reader shares with me the fascination I have felt the times that, after picking up a book from a library, I find comments inside from readers of the past. And how those notes, in some cases, were even more interesting than the book itself. An early example of experimentation in that aspect is the one that can be seen in a pretty technical book: Concrete Mathematics, by Graham, Knuth and Patashnik, published by Addison-Wesley, when the comments made by their Stanford students during the review process were published as part of the book. I fell in love with that work when I started my studies in Computer Science because, in addition to the subject and the clarity how the authors explained it, the notes were extremely interesting. Some were quite profound, other were quite funny, others were avoidable, but all of them provided a certain "colour" to the book that would not exist otherwise. I could imagine myself attending the authors' course, and surrounded by those "virtual classmates". There is historical marginalia such as Sir Isaac Newton's, Voltaire's or the notes from the Codex of Emilianus, that is considered as the first sentences written in Spanish; and this marginalia is also a beautiful piece of art. In summary, marginalia from writers and researches such as Laplace or James Joyce are considered as a critical component of the context of books. But they also are, and we need to face it in a world like the one we live in, static, limited and scarce.


What books in the cloud allow is for the conversation to happen inside of the book. Let's stop for a second, and let me repeat: INSIDE OF THE BOOK. This is, in my humble opinion, much more important than what it initially seems. Because if I can leave my comments in the book itself, and others can also do it, then I have a conversation in capital letters (and not what it has been said for years that is possible with the new technologies, but: purposeful conversations.) We can imagine having deep conversations about the influence of Ayn Rand in the north american economic politics, but we can also discuss the scripting errors of Chris Claremont in his X-Men series, about pronounciation trends in elven, in The Lord of the Rings, or solve some questions about exercise 4 or section 3 of the Physics textbook. And all of this, again, inside of the book, so the comment thread is contextualized and therefore, much better understood.


Current e-reading platforms are already working on it, and there are some experiments, such as Comment Press, that shows part of the future.

And we don't have to stop there. Why just talking to other readers? Why not with the author? If the doubt or the question I have about a specific passage of the work I am reading needs to be listened by the author herself, why shouldn't I send it to her? Of course, is she's alive, I'm not proposing any kind of Spiritism 2.0 :) This is a critical approach because it takes the author back to where she started; her role as a bard where she exposes her own works to the audience, but whose comments are listened and taken by the author for her work to evolve.

There are some voices that suggest that the concept of the book as a solid and static voice of the culture has only been a small evolutionary detour. That we come from the live, dynamic and changing conversations, and now we come back to them. I do not know whether that is true or not, but we are clearly moving towards the concept of a book that does not admit the extreme rigidity that had before now. The excellent article by Craig Mod already talks about the wikipedia as a well organized example of dynamic and yet encyclopedic information. Can't it be the same with books? There are already some experiments such as "Every Book is a Startup" from O'Reilly and for sure that there will be many more in the future. The books were "chained" to the covers in leather or paperboard, and that's why there were static. It is not necessary any more.





Discovery
What do we do when we enter a book store? It depends of what we are looking for, right?

Maybe we will check the New Releases section, as we have sen an ad about the last work of our favorite author. Or because we have read an article about that work and we were convinced.

Maybe we will go to the fiction area to look for it because, even though we know what we want, it is not in the New Release area. At worst, we can always ask to the person in charge.

Maybe we do not have a fixed book in mind. We might as well want to check what a specific author has written, or we just want to read a book about history, or science-fiction, and we just wander around those areas.

Or maybe we have no idea of what we want. We might just want to find a book at random, or let the bookseller recommend us one.

This also happens when users access electronic bookstores. Sometimes they will "copy-paste" the name of the book sent by a friend, or will go to the exact link where the description, cover and price appears. Other times they will browse the category trees, and some other times they will just be recommended by the system. The different between a physical library and an electronic one is that, regardless of how big the physical place is, the electronic one will always be orders of magnitude bigger. Oh, and there is no bookseller to help us. In order for books on the cloud to succeed, book discovery in a catalog with millions of works is one of the crucial elements. Big electronic book stores know that since many years ago, and that is why their discovery and purchase-based recommendation tools are so good. These tools will still need to improve over time, but I wanted to focus on other type of discovery; in those that do not depend upon what one wants, but what it is not expected. Yes, purchase-based recommendation tools provide part of it, but at the end it is based on what people purchase (basically a vicious circle) so there will always be books to discover. The future of the book requires, in my opinion, new tools that exert a role similar to that of Bookcrossing, to what our friends do, and what literary critics do.

Bookcrossing is a movement worth knowing. People can "free" those books out of their personal libraries that were not going to be read any more (most of them if we are sincere), so other people can enjoy them as they find them on the street. If we also tag them and upload some basic metadata to the Bookcrossing website, we can, in theory, follow the life of our book as it passes from one reader to another. From any user's standpoint, finding an interesting book is pure serendipity. Walk by a street, a square, and there, at the base of a statue, lying on top of a bench, there is a book that says it currently belongs to nobody, and is waiting for a new opportunity.

So, Bookcrossing is serendipity... but serendipity is also going to Twitter and take a look at all messages with the "hashtag" "#bookrecommendation". Or using the LinkedIn social recommendation app. Suddenly, we get tens, hundreds of messages with recommended books. Of course, many of them will not be of interest to us, but maybe one or two will catch our attention... and we will have that serendipity moment again.

And friends? Friends do know us, and we know they are our closer champions. What do you get for your birthday and christmas in addition to the almighty tie or parfume? Records, movies and books. As much as the physical formats might disappear in the future, friends will continue, if not giving us presents, recommending us what they believe we will like (sometimes because they know what we are attracted to, sometimes because they want us to advance in our tastes, and others because they simply want our likes to be closer to them... but they are our friends and we love them :) )

And the literary critics? For many people just mentioning "literary critical" unchains a yawn; but for many other people they are the true keepers of literary quality. There are more than best-sellers for many readers, and specialists help us discern between good and bad, sublime and horrible, original and simple copycat.

Books in the cloud will require a greater effort by those critics. And tools that help them or at least complement their work. Tools that are able to "research" the implicit context provided by the book in order to better understand it beyond what a reader, by herself, could ever achieve. I don't just mean translating a latin sentence to spanish because an author thought he was being pretty smart for putting it right in the key moment of the work. And it also doesn't just mean than a reader can highlight a word to look it up in an online dictionary or in the wikipedia. Good, but not enough.

It goes way beyond this. It is more related to the titanic effort done by the Book Genome Project, that is trying to define an enormous series of parameters that provide meaning to a book, that is, its DNA. This way, we could, for example, find similar books. Similars with respect to quality, style, tension level, and so on.





Just to add a few more examples, there are efforts related to classifying and indexing books in an automatic way based on its content (which is a crucial task when we have millions of books, and many more being written, built and published every year); extracting relevant concepts out of a literary text (such as historical events, which can be used to discern between real events and fantasized ones); or being able to infer and record the different emotional levels in a work. These are, by now research efforts with no current functional application. But we all know how today's research will be tomorrow's toolset. And without being a member of the Singularity University, this "tomorrow" takes less and less time to appear in front of our noses.



Openness

Openness is another key element and, besides, is undergoing deep discussions. The main concern starts from a seemingly not quite deep reflection, or so it seemed. If a book is transformed, when becoming digital, into a series of bits and bytes, is there any impediment for those elements to merge with other bits and bytes that belong to other texts, but also to images, video and audio? But with this innocent question comes another more abstract one, and however, and at the same time, visceral: what's a book and what will happen with it if all this happens?

And one of the answers that concerns the most because of its consequences is the following: a book has been, is, and will be, an application container.

In the past, an "application" could be a recipe, and a cookbook was a "container of recipe applications". Of course, an application in the past was not a set of bits and bytes, but printed words and images. But it doesn't matter, as the final goal is the same. What's a travel guide? Is there any doubt that the future of these guides will be that of being transformed into applications that not only "tell me" how beautiful the Sistine Chapel is, but that shows it to me, allows me to hear its noise and voices, even smell it! and, once there to actually GUIDE me around the places that I (I, not my neighbour; I, with my likes and dislikes and accumulated tiredness) am most interested about? Or what could we say about textbooks (with teaching and evaluation apps inside)?


The question comes when we fly from the concept of technical book, and come back to the fiction terrain: the novel, the poem. A little while ago Faber published a new edition of the poem "The Waste Land", by T.S. Eliot, their landmark author. But this time it was not a "book" that was published, but an "app", that is, an application to be run on the Apple iPad. In this application, the reader/user can read a poem, but can also listen to the voice of the author and other famous people. And she can also watch a scenification of the poem by Fiona Shaw. What is this?

There is also a series of tales for kids (like the ones created by Contoplanet or Pixel Moon, this last one more focused on pre-teens stories like Urki), that are looking for a more interactive way of telling classic or new stories and adventures. The kid can record her own voice while narrating the tale, or can make the characters move, in a similar though perfected way as the punched books allow. What is this?



Sincerely, I have no answer. I don't know if it is a book, or if it is the future of the book, or if it is an intermediate step that will not get very far, as it happened with those multimedia CDs at the beginning of the 90s (though I don't consider this possibility as a total failure, but as a necessary toll in some cases: the effort and quality behind some of the tales and stories that have already been developed is simply fascinating. What I do believe is that main publishers will not have it as a critical path, simply because of the high development costs of these book-apps compared to the edition and publishing of a "traditional" book.)

But it's just that I don't care. I want a book that entertains me, that makes me think, or that informs me. Of course that a book is not a video documentary, but as long as it has clear written elements that allow me to enjoy information at my own rythm, I will be happy.


And there is no doubt that this "hybridation" that some call "transmedia" will be a mandatory step around experimentation in the following years, just as the appearance of new ebook generation standards predict. This standards intertwine ebooks with the web development technologies (just as it happens with EPUB3, from the IDPF standardization body, embracing the W3C HTML5 and CSS web 2.0 development standards.)


Walrus Epub Demo#3 - Kadath from Walrus Books on Vimeo.

As Julius Wiedemann properly defines, the near future of the book is a world where information is digital and beauty is of paper. But this will also end, and, little by little, our digital reading experience will be as close and beautiful as what we have now... and then we will have digital reading no longer... it will be just reading. And this is a path that, we should not forget, has already started. 2, 3, 4-year old kids use tablets with a quickness and security that we old people would only wish to have. A bedtime story may have a paperboard cover, or be inside of "mom's tablet". What it matters, once again, is that the story is entertaining enough.

Challenges
The three previous sections have looked at a probable future of the book from an optimist point of view. To keep on advancing, we need to approach it that way. But it is true that the world of boooks will find more than once challenge when giving steps forward.

First of all, I still had not mentioned that, as everything in life, the world of books belongs to an industry that has worked for many years in a very specific way, with a clear and appropriate specialization and optimization of tasks. But these technological and cultural changes are shaking the industry. The "mess" that this is causing is, at the least, interesting to follow, but tense times and traumatic decisions await. People like Tom Peters would say this is perfectly normal and even healthy. Obviously, for the people inside, this approach is not the most attractive one.

Going back to the world of books, all this time I have been writing that books go to the clouds. But if they go to the clouds... what happens if it rains? I mean, how much do we depend on the ones providing the books to us? This is a meaningful question, specially when we read news once in a while about internet servers crashing down for hours or days because of human errors, fires or electrical failures. From a technical point of view, the answer is similar to when people say they are afraid to fly and prefer to use a car: flying is orders of magnitude safer than traveling in a car. In this case, books in the cloud are much safer than in a 2-GB drive there in your room. Unfortunately, stats and cold data do not typically convince the one who is afraid to fly, and neither will it to the ones that are hesitant to getting rid of their beautiful library in order to have a single reading device, and all their books "in the cloud". Serving companies will need to work hard to create and prove a feeling of tranquility.


Another issue that I am sure any reader of this article had in mind from the start is the noise in conversations. Enabling everyone to write comments in a book is theoretically interesting, but we all know what 99% of the internet forums become. From the competition to be the first one to write something (the "pole position" competition) to the trolls, those individuals that hiding under anonymity or with the power of 140 characters in twitter, corrupt the main goal of conversations and take them to grounds we typically do not want to step unto; concerns exist that this irrelevant marginalia prevents readers to reach the important goal: to have comments that nurture debate and enrich the original text.

And, of course, I have also written a fair deal about the different types of existing and still-to-be recommendation engines. We are all conscious of how sometimes our friends err on their recommendations. Therefore, the challenge of these tools and the complex and cold algorithms is that these errors are not multiplied, promoting works that not only we are not interested in, but that might propose ideas that are totally against our tastes and likes. This is something users of services that provide automatic recommendations suffer every day, and it is another important challenge to tackle.

Organizational, infrastructure, social and technical issues. Many and complex challenges. And still, aren't they beautiful challenges? Many people think so, and are spending part of their life to try to solve them. People like me. Books have defined the map of my life throughout the years. From the very first bedtime stories and tales read by my parents, to the ones I read by myself; George Orwell's 1984 and the comic-book God Loves, Man Kills defined my pre-adolescence. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, or Kundera's Immortality in my youth; the challenge of Gödel Escher Bach or the surprise of Fromm's Fear of Freedom. Or my interests on reaching maturity, enjoying Antonio Damasio, Ramachandran, Marshall McLuhan or the excellent biography of Oppenheimer.

The only difference is that now, when I read Neil Gaiman's American Gods, or Murakami's 1Q84 in my Kindle, the books, instead of being my map, are my GPS.


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