... or, Charles Dickens Wants to Show You London
[NOTE: this post originally appeared on Datachondria, a blog dedicated to technology, data, and modern life.]
1. Arguing About Reading
Nathan and I had one of those "we're not as smart as we think we are" / "thank god we aren't crazy" moments at BookCamp Toronto last weekend while listening to Peter Brantley talk about the possibilities of "the networked book".
When your regular conversations about the implications of digital distribution tend to be vociferous discussions about publishing -- intellectual property, maintaining cost structures, etc. -- it's easy to find yourself thinking far less about the implications for reading. But the discussion that Peter initiated was an exciting tease about some of those possibilities (before it veered, perhaps inevitably, to the "safe ground" of industry change). And it was reassuring that they are some of the things that we Datachondrians have been kicking around for a little while, in particular about technologies that will enable granular user-generated metadata.
But let's zoom out for a moment.
2. Getting Content to Audiences
Suppose you could tour London in the company of Charles Dickens or Samual Pepys. See the Yosemite Valley alongside John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt. Read Invisible Man while listening to the jazz that Ralph Ellison heard while writing it.
There is a vast amount of content out there that already exists, but is barricaded behind forms -- whether physical items like books or intellectual concepts like genres -- that prevent it from reaching its natural audiences. Exposure to a larger audience is always a win-win situation: more readers, more reading experiences, and an exponential increase in contacts to even more audiences. That isn't just more entertainment value or more revenue: there's an obvious gain to society when more people are exposed to more ideas: those ideas can be put to better use, often in ways not imagined by the original authors. As the exhaustive discussion about long tails and fragmented markets has shown, we've already seen tremendous progress in bringing content to previously unrealized audiences. But to some extent the physical forms and intellectual conception of cultural items like "the book" and "the film" remain obstacles. The weekend visitor to Yosemite might love to hear what Theodore Roosevelt had to say about Half Dome, but doesn't necessary want to read through (still less carry) his diaries alongside essential camping gear. Why not direct them straight to the paragraphs that matter to them?
There is, of course, a lot of institutional resistance to breaking down these units and releasing this content, which would essentially to allow readers to make use of it in whatever ways they can imagine. Some of these forces are legal (copyright); some are economic: what business model would continue to allow the production of value that the publishing industry is currently structured around? Some forces are more purely conceptual: what is the role of the author? Where does the involvement of the author -- their original idea, their intent, their control of presentation, their control of interpretation -- end? Where, for that matter, does it begin?
But there are tremendous countervailing forces -- namely the interpretative processes that readers already employ while consuming content. Readers, listeners, and viewers already associate the content they experience with memories, relationships, and other pieces of content. In the past these have been primarily personal associations. They have been communal only in the narrow set of situations that technology allowed: discussions among friends, within book clubs, and so forth. But they have been there, obscured somewhat by the fact that they left no physical mark upon the transmitter of the content (although many of us treasure a particular edition of a book because of the emotional associations that it carries: who gave it to us; what we were doing while we were reading it). As more than a few participants in the BookCamp conversations pointed out, some of the most meaningful "reading" experiences we have had were due to the conversations that they provoked with colleagues and friends, or the access to memories that they allowed.
All this, now, is possible to a degree and in methods hitherto unimaginable. You can already see it taking place. Set up a Twitter search for the title of your favourite novel and you will see, in realtime, the ways in which it is slotting itself into other people's lives. In doing so it is enriching those new readers and (since it is happening in ways so different from your own experiences) actually enriching the book itself as an amalgamation -- a touchstone -- of collective experience. For the first time, books are visible not just for what they contain but for what they release.
And users, given the tools, will enable, organize, and share that universe of possibilities.
3. A World of Associations
So what could that look like?
Suppose that users could geotag passages of text, works of art and design, pieces of music, audio clips, moments of film. This would allow you to engage in tours of cities, landscapes, and parks with a variety of contextually relevant materials (further reading, illustrations, maps; music and artwork inspired by these locations). Art galleries and museums would not only be augmented by those now ubiquitous curated audio materials, but by user-generated recommendations and commentary on what to see, how to look at it, and what music and writing has been inspired by or associated with it. As these user-generated elements age, they become instant historical tours, sitting alongside (for example) the impressions of Samuel Pepys, Thomas de Quincey, and Charles Dickens to enrich your experience of Oxford Street or Charring Cross Road.
There are obvious business applications -- the links to real-world and online goods and services, where you could purchase a poster of that William Turner painting, that reproduction of Harry Beck's first underground map, or a copy of the Dickens novel that you where just listening to an excerpt from.
Then there are the in-your-armchair experiences. Suppose you could write a soundtrack for your favourite novel? Suppose you could read Blood Meridian with in-text prompts to the music it has directly inspired, to the music that people have associated with it? Inline explanatory footnotes and historical information; photographs and contemporary artwork; moments from classic Western movies that illustrate its spirit and landscape?
Imagine purchasing a work of literature with an interwoven ‘annotation’ pack to provide explanatory material -- or a ‘translation packs’ for ESL students? A book club pack that could allow groups of users to share tags and embed conversations about specific passages. Imagine a book at which -- within the text -- the author and readers were staging a real-time discussion on specific passages. Imagine if cookbooks would suggest similarly-tagged recipes or dishes appropriate to a menu, and point to the location of a local specialty store for cooking materials.
In short -- imagine everything that can happen to content if it can be broken into distinct pieces which can be rated and evaluated on the basis of their contextual usefulness, rather than only on their relationship to ‘the rest of the book’.
4. Liberating Content
Much of the challenge will of course be about the interface design -- a theme underlined, in a variety of contexts, in a number of Saturday's sessions. What is the physical product design, and the information design, that would enable this reading experience? As Nathan pointed out, we should not assume that this need be a traditional book-based reading: a device should allow 'media switching' to let you to continue to enjoy the content regardless of your current physical activity. Should each chapter, point, paragraph, sentence, or word contain 'hooks' on which readers could hang associations, discussions, and other aspects of metadata? Should this entire question, as we have argued before, be available for constant redefinition in whatever terms make sense for the "reader"?
These appear to be narrowly technical points, although there is a big conceptual debate behind them. As Peter Brantley suggested, the recent Google book search settlement, by entrenching the concept of "the work" as a unitary entity defined by authorial intent, may reinforce the legal and conceptual walls mentioned above.
But the possibilities here are enormous, and the pressure may become unstoppable to liberate content from the old physical forms we built to allow its distribution. Ultimately, if our legal, economic and conceptual receptacles cannot adapt, then writers and readers may simply opt out of the system. Their cultural works will emerge independent of the copyright/publishing system and immediately sit in an open-source universe alongside Antony and Cleopatra and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, awaiting the arrival of content from a historically narrow period -- the period in which copyright held sway and books were closed from the designs of their readers.