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    Location: Aberystwyth, Wales, United Kingdom

    I am the owner and managing director of Information Automation Limited (IAL), a company that specialises in research, consultancy and training for the information profession. We are particularly interested in all forms of electronic information resources (e-journals, e-books, etc) and I teach a course in electronic publishing at the Department of Information Studies in Aberystwyth. Drilling down still further(!), my interests centre on the quality and evaluation of electronic information, and in the thinking that underpins activities in library and information science.


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    Friday, June 09, 2006

    The evolution of e-books in a social world (2): When readers start writing

    There has been a persistent theme - sometimes stated and at others rebuffed - behind the debate on if:book, and in the New York Times article by Motoko Rich, the 'Edge' essay by Jaron Lanier, and in John Updike's much reviled talk, that e-books are in some way threatening. They threaten authors, publishers and society; worse still, they threaten the continued existence of real, paper books. I say rubbish to all of that!

    As I have said before, a couple or so posts ago, in Books and e-Books, I am clear that both formats will survive. And I do not understand the argument that e-books are a threat.

    John Updike defended books on the basis of rights and income, being informed by Kevin Kelly's "Scan This Book!" in the previous week's New York Times Magazine, that a virtual world would mean the continuance of neither:
    "the book revolution, which from the Renaissance on taught men and women to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in a sparkling pod of snippets."
    Rich cites an example of such entrepreneurship, which is far from a snippet:
    "Yochai Benkler, a Yale University law professor and author of the new book "The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom" (Yale University Press), has gone even farther: his entire book is available — free — as a download from his Web site. Between 15,000 and 20,000 people have accessed the book electronically, with some of them adding comments and links to the online version."
    And writers other than Updike have greeted these measures with a mixture of enthusiasm and dread. Others see only a brave new world.

    Jeff Jarvis of the Buzz Machine sees only shortcomings in paper books, and his comments are republished in both Chark Blog, and in if:book's entry on What the book has to say: in essence books suffer from being frozen in time with no means of being updated and corrected; from having no link to related knowledge, debates, and sources; from being expensive to produce; from lack of searchability; from being limited to a one-way relationship with a reader; from teaching readers but not teaching authors (from being the subject of the author's whim); and finally, from being "too damned long because they have to be long enough to be books".

    So is the book "long past its expiration date"? No! In fact, many of the shortcomings are, in reality, strengths. Scholarly communication depends on peer-review (peer review is not the same as collaborative authorship - see below) in order that what is published should be new, current, accurate, and worthy. The journal name, the editor's name, the author's name and the institution all lend credence to this process. Fiction (or poetry, drama, or any other compositional work) is the soul of its author on paper, the best thoughts in the best words. It is for that author's style and mind that we buy the book. If I buy a book by George Soros or Noam Chomsky, that is the book I wish to read; that is the author, and the interpretation I wish to understand. Like Jaron Lanier, I wonder about what he terms the new "online collectivism":
    He cites as an example the Wikipedia, noting that "reading a Wikipedia entry is like reading the bible closely. There are faint traces of the voices of various anonymous authors and editors, though it is impossible to be sure".
    The multiple voices are not necessarily helpful or constructive, and the writer's craft is blunted rather than honed, the thinking softened not sharpened by the 'creative' debate. The social, collaborative book changes the author's role to that of an editor or curator, while the relationship with the reader changes to that of collaborators - those later readers who failed to take part will be disadvantaged. Turning reading into an 'asymetrical process' - into a multi-layered conversation - robs the author of his (her) essential purpose... and maybe that is something for Mr Updike to worry about.

    It also demands a new literacy of the reader. I gave a lecture in Sheffield last year in which I developed a taxonomy of literacies:
    • Numeric and reading literacy
    • Visual literacy
    • IT, ICT and ‘ECDL’ = Technological literacy
    • Media literacy
    • Independent learning skills
    • Research skills / research methodology
    • Library skills
    • Information literacy
    Ofcom have defined media literacy as:
    "the ability to access, understand and create communications in a variety of contexts"
    and CILIP developed a definition for Information Literacy:
    "Information literacy is knowing when and why you need information, where to find it, and how to evaluate, use and communicate it in an ethical manner"
    Neither foresaw the need to embrace dialogue as part of reading; for the reader to navigate the virtual space of the e-book and, at the same time, to respond to the author.

    Mark Danielewski, focusing on the book as a "carefully crafted physical reading experience", feels that he is "creating a book that can't exist online" according to physical books and networks, despite the fact that he used social space to develop it. He feels that there is
    "a persistent impulse, especially in fiction, toward the linear... the new networked modes of reading and writing might serve to buttress rather than unravel the old ways. Playing with the straight line (twisting it, braiding it, chopping it) is the writer's art, and a front-to-end vessel like the book is a compelling restraint in which to work."
    I don't know how many readers today are ready for interactive, collaborative, social books; and I don't know how many authors would welcome them! Jaron Lanier is worried about how Wikipedia has "been elevated to such importance so quickly" and - although in Part 1 of this blog entry I was excited about the innovations in e-book authorship - I share this thought, but extend it to all social books (not all e-books). Lanier goes on:
    "And that is part of the larger pattern of the appeal of a new online collectivism that is nothing less than a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise"
    Which brings me back to my comments on folksonomies and other forms of 'messy information'. In a nutshell, they represent exciting possibilities, and clearly offer something that the conventional forms of cataloguing and indexing do not - but it is unlikely that they will work alone or will supplant controlled indexing. Similarly, e-books will not be the catalyst which destroys paper books. Similarly, the continuing evolution of social books will not mean that all e-books are produced from the masses for the masses... they simply represent one possibility, one exciting possibility for authors.

    Evolution means gradual change, not sudden replacement. It is not survival of the strongest, or failure of the weakest. Evolution is what happens when environmental circumstances change. Physical books and networks ends with an analogy:
    "The blog and the news aggregator may not kill the newspaper, but they will undoubtedly change it. And so the book. You see that glint in the chimp's eye? A period of interbreeding has commenced."
    But for some millenia to come, the book, the e-book and the social book will all gradually learn to walk upright. Fade in 'Also sprach Zarathustra'.

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