Everything is the same only different

November 1, 2011

Last week I spoke at Books in Browsers at the Internet Archive in San Francisco. It was a great programme, and special thanks must go to Peter Brantley at the IA for all his work putting it together. TL/DR: here’s the video, report follows:

In the talk, I built on the last post here, on the new value of text. In particular, I focussed on the three values I identified: Velocity, Breadth and Depth.

I introduced the talk by defining my area of interest: the long form text. This is not to say that other things are not interesting, but this is what I talk about when I talk about books: long and some shorter-form texts, novels, some non-fiction.

And so when I talk about “books”, I don’t mean ‘ebooks’ or ‘bound books’ or any division thereof: I’m talking about something written down and transmitted. When we talk about how we feel about and interact with music now we don’t have to specify whether it’s MP3 or vinyl in most contexts. That’s not really what the discussion is about.

The reason this needs to be clear is because when we ask what is different about digital books, what we are asking is what existing qualities of the book digital enhances.

And this is why I am suspicious of many of the more obvious “enhancements” to books, of fiddling with their form or content, of adding extraneous media, images and movies and sound, because we’ve been able to do that for quite a while, and it hasn’t done much for the book. It quite clearly hasn’t captured the imagination like the traditional text has. Whether it’s multimedia CD-ROMs or interactive hypertext fictions—and while there are plenty of good examples of those—the authored text is still our central, best evolved and most respected cultural object. What are needed are not enhancements, but augmentations.

I defined velocity in terms of time-to-market (Penguin Specials and Brain Shots’ Summer of Unrest) and responsiveness (Amazon’s introduction of Kindle Singles and the increased use of analytics within the book).

Breadth consists of the ongoing value of editorial standards in the digital world. Books have always existed in context: to one another, to their shelfmates in the library or the bookstore, in the world at large. Indexes, footnotes, introductions and editorial curation have been used to make these links clear. Yet it is these we are losing in the switch to digital, as publishers race to the bottom to produce ever cheaper editions, and with that a range of formatting and proofing problems arise, further damaging the reputation of the book. These can be resolved instead of increased through digital, through better workflows, linked content and more openness to feedback.

Finally, depth is what is brought to the experience of books by sharing not the books themselves, but our experience of them. This is social reading. As part of BiB I also gave a brief introduction to Open Bookmarks and participated in a NISO meeting on producing a standard for annotations: a necessary step. You can read a summary of my take on social reading at Open Bookmarks. (I was quite surprised at the reaction of some to the idea of social reading—the old canard about cacophany. This post might be of interest too.)

The thrust of this argument is that there is nothing we need to change about books themselves. Books work. My major realisation from the talk and the conference was that books have always been networked; it is us who are becoming networked now.

What I mean by this is that books have always been social and connected, existing in a larger context than it was previously possible for an individual to understand. (I have no doubt this applies to other products, cultural or otherwise, too.) But the network gives us farsight, and new uses, connections and possibilities are revealed.

We need to ask not what is different about digital books, but what digital can do with and for books, which are eternal. Augmentation, not enhancement.

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I also used the talk to introduce a new book work, currently featured in After The Bit Rush at Mu Gallery, Eindhoven. I’ll be writing more about this in a future post.

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Finally, it is perhaps notable in the context of this talk, of current events, of my current feelings about the inviolability of the text, that Booktwo turned five years old last month (I still think the introductory essay is worth revisiting). Thanks for reading.

1 Comment

  1. [...] Afternoon session 1. Books as Data. James Bridle (Booktwo/STML). To the end, Lew. Valla Vakili (Smalldemons). Beyond the Encyclopedia: [...]

    Pingback by Books in Browsers: Program at Books In Browsers — November 2, 2011 @ 4:02 am

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