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 Brownâ€™s new book Pull, I could only think two words:
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.
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 lettersâ€”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 oneâ€™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 oneâ€™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’â€œBookmark.’ But you canâ€™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 thereâ€™s no way to link to it. Whatâ€™s worse: the book in question is Penguin’s edition of Darwinâ€™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. Whatâ€™s the point of going to all this trouble to build machines capable of displaying digital text if we canâ€™t exploit the basic interactivity of that text?… Yes, the iPad makes it easier to carry around a dozen books and magazines, but thatâ€™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 doesnâ€™t contain links, when it cannot be linked to, when it canâ€™t be indexed, when you canâ€™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, thatâ€™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.