Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Checking In On The Future of the Book

Almost three years ago on April 7, 2006, I did a post on the Institute for the Future of the Book (IF:B). Since then, I've done two more posts on the IF:B.

The Institute is a project of the Annenberg Center for Communication at the University of Southern California and is based in Brooklyn and in London. The Institute is funded by the MacArthur and Mellon Foundations.

The mission of the IF:B includes this statement:
Starting with the assumption that the locus of intellectual discourse is shifting from printed page to networked screen, the primary goal of the Institute for the Future of the Book is to explore, understand and influence this shift.
The IF:B called its project Sophie.

Sophie was a social engineering experiment, an attempt to create documents that could live and breathe on the Internet, where readers could interact with each other and with the author. Publishers Lunch said Sophie "will make it easier to create electronic books that incorporate today's technologies to 'present a reading environment' and 'enable readers and writers to have conversations inside of books.'"

Last month, I did a post saying how sorry I was not to be at the O'Reilly Tools of Change conference in New York. Suzanne Axtell of O'Reilly Media made a comment to that post giving the link to video clips from the conference.

I was hugely grateful to Suzanne for the link. Since that time, I've been having a great time watching the video clips.

Today I'd like to talk about the presentation given by Robert Stein, the director of the Institute for the Future of the Book and a Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics.

Stein begins by saying that he started the Institute five years ago "to basically think about how publishing would evolve in the digital era."

He describes the evolution of his understanding over the past thirty years of what a book is and describes his breakthrough moment. That moment came when he stopped focussing on the physical form of the book and--instead--focussed on how the book is used.

Stein points out that, when he began thinking about this around 1980 after a demonstration at MIT, he began to call books "user-driven media." He recognized that the reader was in complete control of the sequencing and the pacing of how and when the book's material was accessed. This made books unique when compared to movies, television and radio--what Stein started to call "producer-driven media."

He realized:
". . . when the micro-processors got involved that these traditionally producer-driven media would be transformed into user-driven media."
Stein began "publishing" books on CD-ROM, DVDs and floppy discs.

When the Internet came along, Stein had to again separate his understanding of the book from the physical object itself. His new definition became:
"Books are what humans use to move ideas around in time and space and that the locus of that effort would shift from pages to screens."
Eventually when he started the IF:B, he came to understand that--more important than people getting data and content off the network--would be connecting those people to each other on the network.

The IF:B experimented with authors posting their research online as they write, permitting interested readers to read along and comment as they read. Associate Professor Mitchell Stevens of NYU and Associate Professor McKenzie Wark, author of Gamer Theory, were the first two experiments. Stein calls this process "public reading" and says it completely changes the boundaries of a classroom, essentially liberating students from the physical boundaries of their class, permitting them to comment wherever they are.

Stein's latest definition of a book is:
"A book is a place where readers, and sometimes authors, can congregate."
Then Stein said my favorite thing of his entire talk: He believes an old-school author's commitment has been to engage with a subject matter on behalf of future readers. But a new-school author makes a commitment to engage with readers in the context of a particular subject.

Stein believes that, in the future, reading will be a social experience. He further believes the principal role of publishers in the future will be to build and nurture vibrant communities for authors and their readers.

See Stein's presentation for yourself here.

1 comment:

Charlene said...

Very interesting. Goes along with Harlequin's reinvention, community and reader/author interaction.