As someone who made the leap from print to electronic publishing over thirty years ago people often ask me to expound on the “future of the book.” Frankly, I can’t stand the question, especially when asked simplistically. For starters it needs more specificity. Are we talking 2 years, 10 years or 100 years? And what does the questioner mean by “book” anyway? Are they asking about the evolution of the physical object or its role in the social fabric?
It’s a long story but over the past thirty years my definition of “book” has undergone a major shift. At the beginning I simply defined a book in terms of its physical nature — paper pages infused with ink, bound into what we know as the codex. But then in the late 1970s with the advent of new media technologies we began to see the possibility of extending the notion of the page to include audio and video, imagining books with audio and video components. To make this work conceptually, we started defining books not in terms of their physical components but how they are used. From this perspective a book isn’t ink on bound paper, but rather “a user-driven medium” where the reader is in complete control of how they access the contents. With laser videodiscs and then cd-roms users/readers started “reading” motion pictures; transforming the traditionally producer-driven experience where the user simply sat in a chair with no control of pace or sequence into a fully user-driven medium.
This definition worked up through the era of the laser videodisc and the cd-rom, but completely fell apart with the rise of the internet. Without an “object” to tie it to, I started to talk about a book as the vehicle humans use to move ideas around time and space.
People often expressed opposition to my freewheeling license with definitions but I learned to push back, explaining that it may take decades, maybe even a century for stable new modes of expression and the words to describe them to emerge. For now I argued, it’s better to continuously redefine the definition of “book” until something else clearly takes its place.
Now that we can easily create, manage, and share chunks of ‘content’ — writing, images, video, commentary, and metadata — digital books and other digital containers for information start to smell a lot alike.
Perhaps a better question is ‘what is the future of…’ for the constituent activities, like the future of poetry, or fiction, or erotic photography. The containers will increasingly be soft copy.
In an era where the coffee table has a touch screen, the idea of coffee table ‘books’ will be just a rendering on the screen of these works, that can be opened and read on the table, or on the visitor’s personal tablet.
Stein goes on in this essay to discuss this new sort of book as becoming social objects, where readers can participate in public or private communities commenting on a work, such as in classrooms, the workplace, or the open web.
This is where books blend and intermix with other web-based and digital forms of information, and where our intentions in the use of the objects is shown as the only consideration that matters, not the historical meaning of something like a ‘book’.
The medium, or process, of our time — electric technology — is reshaping and restructuring patterns of social interdependence and every aspect of our personal life. It is forcing us to reconsider and re-evaluate practically every thought, every action, and every institution formerly taken for granted. Everything is changing: you, your family, your education, your neighborhood, your job, your government, your relation to “the others”. And they’re changing dramatically.
Imagine that I am reading an article by Richard Florida, and I want to save snippets of it in my Workflowy. If Workflowy had a bookmarklet — which is a strange omission — I would click on it, and it would do the following:
Capture the URL of the page
Capture the title of the article (if possible)
Capture any selected text
Place these in three appropriately labeled and editable fields
Display some mechanism for indicating where the new item should be nested in my Workflowy
Show an ‘Add’ button, which I’d press to add after selecting a location.
As a fallback, I’d like a bookmarklet that captures title, URL, and any selected text in a single text string, so I can cut and paste to Workflowy.
I’ve been using my Todoist bookmarklet, but it is less than optimal, since it places the URL first in the edit buffer and the page title second, in parens, for its own task creation purposes.
The good news is that I found a bookmarklet that was almost what I wanted, and I hacked it to be workable.
The original bookmarklet is from 5typos.net, and created a three line text string with the page title, the URL, and any selected text from the page. Here’s it is, unescaped:
The chart above, created by Nicholas Felton of the New York Times, shows how long it took various categories of product, from electricity to the Internet, to achieve different penetration levels in US households. It took decades for the telephone to reach 50% of households, beginning before 1900. It took five years or less for cellphones to accomplish the same penetration in 1990. As you can see from the chart, innovations introduced more recently are being adopted more quickly. By analogy, firms with competitive advantages in those areas will need to move faster to capture those opportunities that present themselves.