A Momentary Suspension of Disbelief

Boris Anthony and Hugh McGuire discuss how much more might be possible when we truly bring books to digital.

Take a book down from the shelf, or pick it up off the table. Open it and read a line. With a pencil, underline something, or make a note in the margin.

In the moment that we do these things, we use basic technologies—ones we’ve had for a long time. We are also then using the outcome of a great number of other technologies which exist to bring books, shelves and pencils to us. We don't think of all that when we read a book, glance at our library, or make a note for later. Once it is ours, we don't need any of the enabling machinery to use it, to have it, to make it part of our life’s experience.

Now, take an ebook.

What is an ebook, really? It too relies on an elaborate infrastructure of supporting technologies. But, rather than fading into the background as they do with books, these technologies intertwine and bind themselves into ebooks, defining and restricting how we may experience them. If it weren't for these devices, apps, and e-commerce shops, would we know how to read an ebook? A deep shift is taking place behind a technological smoke screen of business development. We have just begun to untangle the mess of implications this has for the publishing industry, the mediation of knowledge, and the experience of reading, sharing, and recalling.

When we possess a book, the myriad experiences are ours—the store we bought it from, the friend who recommended it over dinner, the passage that caught our breath. The ghostly existence of digital media, often lost deep within clinical software labyrinths not of our making, leaves no surface or texture for our memory, developed over millennia to contextualize memory to physical experience, turning books into richly ornate totems, to do so.

All we can really do is read our ebooks within the narrowly defined environments sparingly provided by the technology developer—an environment constrained by a business model in which we don't own the ebooks we read, we merely access them from the companies who license them.

But the digitization and networking of books is filled with the promise more opportunity than is evident in such plays for power. Rather than restricting our thinking to this realm—which is admittedly fascinating and hard to turn away from—we begin charting this vast new terrain.

Existing attempts to digitize books—PDF, ePub, Kindle—all suffer from varying combinations of key limitations. They were born from their development as skeuomorphic analogs of their printed counterparts: more visually oriented than meaningfully interactive, overly technical, or flat-out proprietary and closed. Also, none of them are networked, or exist in a persistent way—to be directly accessed and referenced, as opposed to merely available for download—on the Open Web.

A web-based book should not be limited in this way. Nor can it simply be a webpage or a website. The reason for this is simple: a book is a discrete, self-contained collection of structured documents. It must be portable, from one system to another, but identifiable as a copy of a specific work, and edition thereof. We can then also start speaking of revisions, annotations, manipulations, derivative works…

The technical needs of web-based books are currently being investigated by such internet and digital standards organizations as the W3C (HTML, HTTP, URI) and the IDPF (ePub). It’s an evolutionary step for the medium whose time has come.

While driving through the Northern Appalachians of New Hampshire, old friend and colleague Hugh McGuire and I discussed all this and how open and networked digital book technologies could represent a much broader array of opportunity, and depth of experience, than that suggested by the nascent developments so far.

Boris Anthony: Let’s talk about why books on the web are important. Why breaking out of the current ebook reality—with its inaccessible media technologies and locked-down content licenses—is important. To start, we might define an “Open Web Book” as a discrete copy of a web-accessible package of HTML files, text and other media. It includes structural information and metadata. Such a Web book can be collected and managed independently of its producer or provider. We imagine it to follow the ages-old model of physical books, where we can take our copy home, put it on our own shelves, into our own library, and read it, without need for too much extraneous technology.

Hugh McGuire: I will start by saying: books are important to me. We hang big parts of our ideas, and notions on books in a way we don’t with, say, web pages. So books as an intellectual tool have a representative role in our intellectual lives, and how we think about ourselves, and that fact is the driving force for me behind my interest in this. Books as things that I experience slot in an important way of how I think about myself.

B: And your life experience?

H: Exactly. When we think about ebooks, as people who work with digital technology, we quickly end up asking: why can’t I do more to build on the relationships between myself and ebooks? I’d like to have access to, or build, more tools, and explore these relationships more. Paper is limited as a physical medium; it’s not connected to the network. Ebooks are limited by vendor silos, “Digital Rights Management” (DRM) lock-in, and what Amazon or Apple will let you do with them. Yet books are a central set of nodes in how I define myself, and I would like to explore my relationship with books using digital tools. But I can’t.

B: It’s interesting to hear you express how books are “nodes of how you think of yourself.” Books are these things we experience in so many ways. With the physical objects, we remember where we bought it, what prompted us to get it. Maybe someone gave it to us as a gift. And that’s just with the acquisition of the book. There are the ideas that the book creates in our minds, the memories of the time when we were reading it, that time when we pulled it off the shelf to show a passage to a visiting friend. These are all experiences, and they add to who we are, to our life experience. As you say, physical books give us all these things, but they are limited, especially for those of us who work with digital, with the web. We know there is so much more that can be done with information. And we turn and look at ebooks, and think, “Well, all I can really do with this is read it.”

H: You’ve said this before: for certain kinds of books, just reading it is only one small part of what that book represents in your life. There’s so much more. You had this notion of a “return on investment” from owning a book, that there is so much more than just that process of reading.

Ebooks have done two things really well: They make it easy to get access to books. And they’ve done a pretty good job for raw reading. But there are all these other experiences around books that ebooks are not helping us engage with and get value from. And for me this is such a source of frustration: that we could be getting more value, but the model that exists in commercial ebook publishing just does not allow for anyone to build the tools to explore these ideas.

B: Let’s take as an example what some have called “Quantified Reading.” Aspects of the act of reading itself that we might capture: what time did I start this reading session, what time did I end, where was I, what have I annotated, and how many people do I know who have annotated this as well? This can all be interesting as a reader, and a company called Readmill tried to do this recently. They ultimately came up against a wall, not because those people who used the service didn’t love it, but because they were trying to do this within the current model of commercial ebook publishing, with closed systems and DRM. So, for me, the question becomes “How do we create an infrastructure where a Readmill can thrive, where a reader can elect to plug into that system without breaking laws?” This simply is not the case right now.

Of course it goes beyond just tracking your behavior with a book. We can make the text itself—as well as the ebooks and our collections of them—more directly tangible, interface-able, more deeply, cognitively graspable. We can get so much more out of it all than just quickly reading a file. Our hunch is that there is so much more value buried deep in ebooks—in their reading as well as their possession. But before we can explore in any scaled way, we have to build the infrastructure. Because the current ecosystem is all locked up with tech silos, DRM and protectionist business models.

H: It’s a strange thing to have spent years working with a concept of the open web, building tools around information on an open platform, to then compare that to the current ebook ecosystem. We take this particular class of information (books) and we block it off from accessing and being accessible by that open platform of the web. Blogging for instance, where many of the people involved in creating the information were also building the bits and pieces around it, exploring how we could interact with it in new ways. Coming from that, we’re left with this sense of frustration, that we aren’t able to do that kind of creating, consuming and building of new experiences with ebooks.

B: I was one of those people, and having been involved for instance in GlobalVoices.org, which connected into digital and data journalism. I look at The New York Times now, which has a whole department that explores how stories can be told and read differently. A lot of the ethos that came out of blogging went into the journalism world. It made sense, it felt natural, it was ripe for the picking. But I see also a rich cultural overlap, in places like Cambridge and New York, where this community of digital journalists and book hackers intersect. If we said, “Hey, we want to do some cartographic map or timeline or social graph views of the content of books,” they might say, “Oh, yeah, interesting, how can we do that?” Well, first we need some good interesting books and then we need to have those books be part of the Web somehow.

I sense that these concepts, which have already been integrated into the practices of digital journalism, are now ready to be applied toward digital books as well. It’s time to do this.

H: It’s an interesting historical parallel, because I think the commercial book world moved the way they did—and built the ebook world the way they did—in direct reaction to the chaos that came to music and journalism with digital. The book industry said: “We can’t go the way of the music industry, where the whole business model exploded because of technology that was out of their control. We can’t go the route of journalism, where everything went online, and then business models started falling apart.” So the book world, shrewdly, said, “OK we’ll just replicate what we do in the physical world: package things up, make sure everything is encapsulated, sell units through retailers, the way we used to go through B&N now we’ll go through Amazon.” That way they managed to keep a supply chain and business model that looks rather similar to what it looked like 20 years ago, in a way that none of the other media businesses have.

That’s the force that we’re running up against, a business model that has been well protected, and well thought out. Our frustration as people who build on top of information is “Well, yes, but we could be doing more, delivering so much more value to readers.”

B: This is a good place to dive into some notions of where “more” might come from. I mention this often and it's one of my favorite questions: “When you read, is text all you see?” Of course we see text as our eyes move across it, but our mind sees the ideas the author hoped to get across to us. If we’re up to the task, we experience the somewhat magical phenomenon of our imagination re-creating those ideas, emotions, notions and experiences encoded in the text. What can we add to the reading experience that helps us get more directly to that point of communication?

H: Without distracting from the focus of reading.

B: Right, without resorting to forms of attention-grabbing media like video or interactive widgets? The synthesis has to happen in the reader’s mind, and figuring out the tools to do that effectively and delightfully is an exciting challenge.

H: I saw a Tweet recently that said something along the lines of “Reading is so crazy, we look at little black marks scratched on smushed up wood and start hallucinating." Reading is such a fundamental part of the way modern society operates that we forget how magical the process is. Part of the problem is we don't know what those magical things are. There's a lot of experimentation needed to figure out and "design" ways to make this (digital) reading experience more valuable.

B: As a designer, it’s a great challenge to make books that engage not only the readers’ semantic cognition but also their spatial, temporal and social cognitions, as well as help synthesize all that into new knowledge. I can imagine supporting the absorption of a text by including different mediated views of its content. Some approaches spring to mind that aren’t necessarily new but could be easily generated for any given book. For example a cartographic map of places mentioned, accessible at any moment, with a “we are here now” zoom in. Other visualizations such as explorable social graphs of characters, or timelines—structural and chronological, thematic relationship coloring; all these would visually reinforce the understanding we seek when we read. They could also represent alternative means of navigating a book, beyond the existing structural table of contents.

H: There's an argument to be made that maybe books just aren't that good at doing this kind of thing for some people. That we think reading is important and people should have deeper experiences with books, where maybe they're perfectly happy not to. Perhaps this also represents a danger. A danger of idealizing books

B: I agree, idealizing the book is not going to get us far. Myself I'm not romantic about it. I don't swoon at the smell of the ink or artisanal binding crafts. I do however try to understand what makes a book—that discrete, self-contained and portable package of ideas—as a medium, different and unique from other media. For instance, books have proven resilient across time. An open, text-based ebook, and all its metadata—which is also text—can be printed and stored in a vault. Twenty generations later, it can be opened and read without any special technology beyond recognition of the symbols, syntax and grammar of old languages. Also, text is totally formal. What I mean by that is that finding all the instances of a word in a book is trivial, compared to doing the same in a video. And really, text is itself a foundational part of all our digital technologies. Everything digital is done in text. Before it is “machine readable” it still has to be “human readable.” I think that’s powerful.

H: There are a few things I'd like in my reading life that would deliver more value to me, such as having the access and control needed to own and manage my annotations and my personal e-library. There are layers, from such obvious things to do, as you mentioned, to the wider world of experiences that could be built and which would deliver more value in ways that we can't really name right now, especially once network effects take hold. If everyone’s interactions with their copies of a book feed back up to their source, their creator and publisher, they can begin to engage a distributed conversation and exploration.

B: Right, it's not good enough to just go and build another reader app, another e-bookstore or stuff like that. The work that needs to be done is adding the necessary infrastructure to the existing web to make books first class citizens on the network.

H: Finally, deeply important with this notion of books on the Web is that all these ideas we've been talking about are still largely abstract and we need a demonstration of real value in these principles and concepts. That can only happen with an available, accessible and desirable corpus of books that can be explored in these ways, by many engaged readers.

The market never really played out for e-books in the way that those driving it expected. As with almost everything online, the web itself proves hard to beat as a delivery platform—and for anything other than business books, a Kindle can be hard to love. Boris and Hugh make a compelling argument that, as we consider the path forward, much of what we risked leaving behind from the traditional reading experience can be found again, and even built upon, if we’re willing to ask the right questions — AR

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