April 30, 2010

Broken Boxes

This has been one of those weeks in which everything I’m reading seems related and is clicking for me. It’s got my mind churning, and I’m still not sure what to think of it all.

The first is from Will Richardson and is titled The End of Books (At Least, For Me?), a provocative statement to be sure. Don’t panic – it’s not really about the end of books, just print books for his own use.

“Turns out my iPad Kindle app syncs up all of my highlights and notes to my Amazon account. Who knew? When I finally got to the page Ted pointed me to in my own account, the page that listed every highlight and every note that I had taken on my Kindle version of John Seely Brown’s new book Pull, I could only think two words:

Game. Changer.

All of a sudden, by reading the book electronically as opposed to in print, I now have:

  • all of the most relevant, thought-provoking passages from the book listed on one web page, as in my own condensed version of just the best pieces
  • all of my notes and reflections attached to those individual notes
  • the ability to copy and paste all of those notes and highlights into Evernote which makes them searchable, editable, organizable, connectable and remixable
  • the ability to access my book notes and highlights from anywhere I have an Internet connection.

Game. Changer.

I keep thinking, what if I had every note and highlight that I had ever taken in a paper book available to search through, to connect with other similar ideas from other books, to synthesize electronically?…”

Honestly, I didn’t know about this, either, and I’m now seriously considering going back to reading nonfiction on my Kindle, something I had stopped doing when I couldn’t get at my highlights and free them. As far as I was concerned, they were bricked text. But I logged in at http://kindle.amazon.com and sure enough, there were the highlights from the three nonfiction books I’d read on my Kindle.

On the one hand, this is incredibly appealing, to have all of the excerpts I’ve highlighted as interesting to me accessible, searchable, and remixable. Really appealing, and the fact that I can now get text out of Kindle books makes it a platform I may be more willing to deal with again, although the inability to share a book with a friend is still causing some hesitation.

As I began contemplating this, I read Steven Johnson’s recent post, The Glass Box and Commonplace Book. It really resonated with me on a number of levels. First, Johnson revives the idea of the “commonplace book.”

“Scholars, amateur scientists, aspiring men of letters—just about anyone with intellectual ambition in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was likely to keep a commonplace book. In its most customary form, ‘commonplacing,’ as it was called, involved transcribing interesting or inspirational passages from one’s reading, assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations. It was a kind of solitary version of the original web logs: an archive of interesting tidbits that one encountered during one’s textual browsing.”

He then goes on to talk about a major problem with the iPad, the way it locks down text (including public domain works) in a way that prevents users from creating their own commonplace books.

“[when you try to copy a paragraph of text] …you get the familiar iPhone-style clipping handles, and you get two options ‘Highlight’ and’“Bookmark.’ But you can’t actually copy the text, to paste it into your own private commonplace book, or email it to a friend, or blog about it. And of course there’s no way to link to it. What’s worse: the book in question is Penguin’s edition of Darwin’s Descent of Man, which is in the public domain. Those are our words on that screen. We have a right to them.”

Johnson then goes on to describe (in a much more articulate way than I’ve been able to) what bothers me so much about the iPhone and iPad.

“We can try to put a protective layer of glass of the words, or we can embrace the idea that we are all better off when words are allowed to network with each other. What’s the point of going to all this trouble to build machines capable of displaying digital text if we can’t exploit the basic interactivity of that text?… Yes, the iPad makes it easier to carry around a dozen books and magazines, but that’s not the only promise of the technology. The promise also lies in doing things with the words, forging new links of association, remixing them. We have all the tools at our disposal to create commonplace books that would astound Locke and Jefferson. And yet we are, deliberately, trying to crawl back into the glass box.

…When your digital news feed doesn’t contain links, when it cannot be linked to, when it can’t be indexed, when you can’t copy a paragraph and paste it into another application: when this happens your news feed is not flawed or backwards looking or frustrating. It is broken.

The force that enables these unlikely encounters between people of different persuasions, the force that makes the web a space of serendipity and discovery, is precisely the open, combinatorial, connective nature of the medium. So when we choose to take our text out of that medium, when we keep our words from being copied, linked, indexed, that’s a choice with real civic consequences that are not to be taken lightly.”

And that’s a huge dealbreaker for me. Make no mistake – apps are just software. I’m lucky enough to have the entire internet at my fingertips, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to buy an interface to it for which one company controls what software I can use to access the great, big, beautiful web (in this case, Apple, but there are other products with this same problem). I don’t take that lightly at all, especially when I read things like David Lankes’ brilliant take on what networked text could be like. Of course, your mileage may vary, and you may not have the problem with these closed systems that I do (and it’s not just with Apple), but that’s my personal value. Johnson would fully support Will Richardson’s right to create his commonplace book, as do I.

While synthesizing my reactions to both of these posts, I started reading Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget. I’m only a few chapters into it, but it’s already extending how I think about Facebook (a subject for another post) and the iPhone/iPad.

One of Lanier’s concerns is how decisions made in the design of our digital tools lock us in to behaviors that reduce – and even remove – our humanity. For the ebook context, an alternative title for his book could have been “You Are Not an App.” It’s really tough to quote excerpts from the book without losing a lot of context and his supporting arguments, but the following excerpts are a glimpse.

“We shouldn’t seek to make the pack mentality as efficient as possible. We should instead seek to inspire the phenomenon of individual intelligence. (p.5)

Lock-in makes us forget the lost freedoms we had in the digital past. That can make it harder to see the freedoms we have in the digital present. Fortunately, difficult as it is, we can still try to change some expressions of philosophy that are on the verge of becoming locked in place in the tools we use to understand one another and the world.” (p.14)

Lanier takes an opposite approach to where Richardson is headed. Will is going to end up with Johnson’s commonplace book in digital form, and that’s extremely appealing to him. I totally understand why, and it’s great if that works well for him. However, it’s interesting to read how Lanier worries about this kind of future and the impact it will have on all of us and our very humanity. What might we lose in the process of digitizing every book and making the content available as unanchored bytes?

“If the books in the cloud are accessed via user interfaces that encourage mashups of fragments that obscure the context and authorship of each fragment, there will be only one book. (p.46)”

It’s not an argument for a closed system, just better and more thoughtful options, interactions, delineation of authorship, etc., and I can’t disagree with that. What will the civic consequences be of Richardson’s commonplace book (or mine, if I go down that path)? Can text be too networked? Are there any clues to this in how we currently use our full text databases, where we’ve already digitized every bit and made it remixable?

Overall, I don’t agree with 100% of anything any of these gentleman have written (although I come pretty close with Johnson). They’ve all contributed to a very thought-provoking week for me and I really appreciate that. I’m still trying to work through a lot of this in my own mind, and other than the fact that I’m against devices that lock me in to their vision of the internet, I’m still not sure where I really come down in this whole thing.

And what’s the significance for libraries? I’m not sure how much Will Richardson uses libraries now, but what does it mean when he can network the text from his Kindle but his library can’t circulate any content to it? That’s also a design decision (made by publishers) with very specific civic consequences.

Johnson ends his post by calling on journalists, educators, publishers, and software developers to fight for common places (not glass boxes) and connections. What responsibilities do libraries have to prevent the civic consequences he describes? In the pages I’ve read so far, Lanier encourages developers to think carefully about the behaviors their products lock people into – does that include libraries? How can we help maintain commonplace books in a world of digital text while still maintaining the edges of authorship? Do we as librarians really want to promote the iPad’s lock-in, especially if we’re not explaining those civic consequences to the next generation of readers and content generators?

At this point, I have a lot more questions than answers.


  1. This is a fantastic post, and I’ll be sharing it far and wide. Thank you! You’ve given me, as usual, a lot to think about. I keep re-reading 🙂

    Comment by Jen Waller — April 30, 2010 @ 10:54 am

  2. I was just able to , using Stanza, copy and email a text clipping from a Project Gutenberg edition of Flatland on my iPhone. It’s not the OS. It may be the app, or it may be the DRM attached to individual items.

    Comment by Jason — April 30, 2010 @ 12:59 pm

  3. Thanks, Jen!

    Jason, Stanza does have a little more flexibility on the iPhone (it would be interesting to know how it works on the iPad), but I’m also referring to Apple’s overall approach, which is completely closed. Have you been able to add any software to your iPhone that wasn’t pre-approved by Apple and didn’t come through iTunes? If your iPhone works for you, great, but I don’t want my online experiences shaped only by Apple. YMMV.

    Comment by jenny — April 30, 2010 @ 2:37 pm

  4. […] Posted on April 30, 2010 by mkschoen Lots, lots lots to think about here: The Shifted Librarian->Broken Boxes […]

    Pingback by | A font of useless information — April 30, 2010 @ 2:43 pm

  5. Great post! Makes one think, especially after reading Apple’s “explanation” of why they do not support Flash.

    Comment by Kate — April 30, 2010 @ 4:42 pm

  6. As an information management student I found this post very thought provoking and am looking forward to following up some of the links/books you mentioned

    Comment by Vanessa — April 30, 2010 @ 7:08 pm

  7. Wow! Making me think, as always–and opening up new connections to things I haddn’t read. Thanks, Jenny!

    As for getting software on the iPhone that wasn’t pre-approved by Apple and didn’t come through iTunes, sure! HTML 5 can do this–and already does. For example, Ibis Reader, http://ibisreader.com/, is a great webapp which you can install by bookmarking the page; since it uses HTML 5, you can then use it offline, too.

    Comment by Jodi Schneider — April 30, 2010 @ 7:09 pm

  8. I would say it’s one of the best article I have ever read this year!

    Comment by Lily — April 30, 2010 @ 9:27 pm

  9. Thank you for taking the time to construct an extended, and very interesting, text today.

    Comment by CarisseB — April 30, 2010 @ 11:11 pm

  10. Great post; thanks. Yes, apple locks down the apps available through iTunes, but web apps are getting more and more interesting; and they are pushing what’s possible for web apps in a very open way through their support of webkit and HTML 5.

    Comment by gregor — May 1, 2010 @ 3:49 am

  11. Commonplace Books either feed into or grow out of the Renaissance interest in magic and Hermeticism and alchemy. There was a common belief that the act of writing out a quotation from a book helped fix that idea in your spirit and mind. You are right to compare Will’s insight to the commonplace book, but a digital commonplace book is at least one step less effective than a paper one (and I built a rolling “bamboo book” out of embroidery thread and Popsicle sticks once) because the handwriting carries the idea from eye through brain to hand to paper.

    I’ll continue to keep my CP books on paper for the moment eventh though iBooks, Stanza and the Kindle app all help me read more.

    Another exercise for those who keep CP books is to choose 7 sentences, and transfer them again to index cards. Then use each sentence as a subject of meditation for a day, for a week. It helps ideas to percolate deeply… Something the Internet does not teach us to do well.

    Comment by Andrew B. Watt — May 1, 2010 @ 4:36 am

  12. Thanks for the comments, everyone. The HTML 5 angle is a great one, but it’s almost incidental to Apple. The good news is that it will finally open up the iPhone, but compare that approach with Palm’s where I have two icons on my phone and a Java program on my laptop just for downloading apps from unofficial catalogs that Palm hasn’t approved (but condones). I also have 39 non-Palm patches from those catalogs that make my phone better than it is out of the box. Personally, I’ll take the latter, open approach over the “we know what’s best for you” one every time.

    Andrew, I like the 7-sentence idea. Amazon has an interesting “daily refresh” feature for Kindle owners that could help with that process. I need to post about that, too. Thanks for adding more details about CP books.

    Comment by jenny — May 1, 2010 @ 9:16 am

  13. […] as the notion of commonplace texts discussed in Jenny Levine’s brilliant April 30 blog post, “Broken Boxes”, and the possibilities for a shared social reading experience that are informed by my previous study […]

    Pingback by I Begin a New Chapter in My Life as a Reader « The Unquiet Librarian — May 4, 2010 @ 10:19 pm

  14. On my iPad, I was able to cut and paste from an iBooks copy of a Hans Christian Andersen collection into an email, and into Notes. It’s not iBooks or Apple that is preventing you from copying, it’s whoever created the iBook you are trying to copy from, in this case Penguin. Just like with PDFs, the creator of the document can choose whether or not to allow copying.

    The app store is indeed closed, but that is why there have been no iPhone viruses on non-jailbroken iPhones thus far. It’s a tradeoff, and both ways of doing things – the open and the closed – have their benefits. On a recent episode of the Security Now podcast with Steve Gibson, he describes the situation this way:

    “Thus, taking Apple’s just-released iPad as an example, while we cannot possibly say today that the iPad – a three-week-old product when we’re recording this podcast – is secure because by definition that can ONLY be proven over time, we can definitely state that the iPad’s fundamental design, by virtue of the deliberate and often infuriating and disappointing limitations that were designed into it from the start, make it as a platform not only fundamentally more secure, but also fundamentally more securable. ”

    Read or listen to the rest here if you’re interested: http://twit.tv/sn245

    Comment by Erika — May 5, 2010 @ 1:45 pm

  15. Erika, my Palm Pre is about as open as a system can get, and it hasn’t been affected by any viruses. If that was a primary motivation for users, we’d all be living in AOL’s walled garden, but we don’t because we prefer the open web. Linux systems are even more secure than Macs, but we don’t see users flocking to the OS because of its security features.

    Apple had a three-year head start with the iPhone, but now Android phones are well on their way to catching up. Apple will have, at best, a three-month lead with the iPad before we start seeing comparable open tablets. At that point, we’ll find out if more people prefer closed systems like Apple’s or open ones like Google’s. I never thought I’d sit in a Google camp, but if the choice is between Steve Jobs controlling my apps and interfaces or me doing it, I’m choosing the open internet every time.

    Comment by jenny — May 9, 2010 @ 10:23 pm

  16. Just going back and re-reading this great post, Jenny, and that last comment caught me: How’s that 3 month lead on the iPad looking now?


    Comment by Jason Griffey — September 8, 2010 @ 10:49 am

  17. Duuuuuude, have you SEEN the list of Android tablets about to hit? (Rhetorical question, I know you have.) It’s freaking choice overload. My big problem now will be waiting for the dust to settle a bit (which is one reason I went ahead and ordered a Kindle 3 this week).

    I’ll admit three months was a bit ambitious, but I’m willing to live with being off by three months. Overall, I’m confident my prediction that tablets running open systems will overtake the iPad’s closed system much faster than Android handsets have overtaken the iPhone (three years).

    And as long as we’re talking about leads, I’m sure you saw this, too.

    I <3 our debates. 🙂

    Comment by jenny — September 8, 2010 @ 10:26 pm

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