Book-fire: the book will find its reader, by John Miedema
October 3, 2011 | 11:42 am
The book is on fire, so we are told. In 2007 Amazon released its e-reader, the Kindle, its brand suggesting a gentle flame by which to read. In 2010 we reached a tipping point with e-readers as sales of e-books soared. Last week Amazon announced the Kindle Fire, a tablet. With its low price, enthusiasts are predicting a hit. Is the book really on fire? The metaphor is too easy, a cliché, but is it accurate? Things are changing fast. Digital technology has revolutionized publishing. The big book stores are closing. Libraries are now popular data access centres. Is the end of the traditional book in sight? One has to wonder too about the future of reading. The Kindle Fire is a tablet, designed to sell movies and music too. How long till the dedicated e-reader is bumped from the product offerings? Is the book on fire or is it just marketing?
Chill, take a glass of water. The Kindle is not the first book innovation. Writing has been around for 5000 years, changing all the while. In Reading in the Brain, Dehaene tells how we kept revising our alphabet to work better with the common “letterbox” of the brain. The scroll was replaced by the two-sided codex. The invention of the Gutenberg Press allowed for mass production. Books once chained to library desks became widely accessible in public libraries. It is misleading to say the book is on fire if that implies a potential victim of change. It seems more accurate to speak of book-fire, as if the book contains an inner fire, compelling us to change, seeking change to find its readers.
Fire is the combustion of material releasing heat and light. It can cause unexpected benefits. In Library: An Unquiet History, Battles observes that while many books are lost over time to natural decay, scrolls blackened by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 are now being reclaimed using spectral photography: “the most complete ancient library accessible to us today survived because it burned.” Fire can also cause desperate innovation. In Bradbury’s classic, Farenheit 451, the possession of books is criminalized and “fireman” burn them. Guy Montag is a fireman who secretly collects books. Later a fugitive, he meets a group of older men who have memorized entire books to preserve them. It is pause for thought today as major information services are vying for commerical and legal control of digital books. As the book changes how will we preserve and promote unfettered access?
What is said of books is also true of book data — its metadata: the titles, authors, classifications, reviews and so on. Book data is one of they key ways that people find and evaluate books for reading. The history of book data has it locked in databases, meted out in pennies per byte for purchase. Even today many libraries still purchase book cover images. More progressive enterprises like Open Library provide web services by which anyone can get cover images and other book data for free. What is next? I wonder if we manage book data in central repositories, no matter how progressive? Are there any risks? Today Amazon is deep into cloud technology, a reinvention of the mainframe. Certainly Amazon is entitled to administer their book data, but is there a way for individuals to manage and share their own book data?
This article kicks off a series that proposes an innovative use of P2P technology to let people share book data between their personal web hosts. The series will describe how P2P torrent technology can be used to assemble book records from different sources. Unlike music or movie files typically shared by P2P, a book record can be assembled into a “floating” book wiki. It will also be discussed how P2P technology depends on a common standard. Standards work well if everyone agrees to them and change happens infrequently. A more radical P2P approach is introduced in which the consistency of a standard is achieved instead by book domain knowledge. These innovations are described in the timely context of book data, but they can also be applied to any other domain where widespread independent sharing of data is valued.