if:book in library journal (and kevin kelly in n.y. times) 05.15.2006, 11:21 AM
posted by ben vershbow
The Institute is on the cover of Library Journal this week! A big article called "The Social Life of Books," which gives a good overview of the intersecting ideas and concerns that we mull over here daily. It all started, actually, with that little series of posts I wrote a few months back, "the book is reading you" (parts 3, 2 and 1), which pondered the darker implications of Google Book Search and commercial online publishing. The article is mostly an interview with me, but it covers ideas and subjects that we've been working through as a collective for the past year and a half. Wikipedia, Google, copyright, social software, networked books -- most of our hobby horses are in there.
I also think the article serves as a nice complement (and in some ways counterpoint) to Kevin Kelly's big article on books and search engines in yesterday's New York Times Magazine. Kelly does an excellent job outlining the thorny intellectual property issues raised by Google Book Search and the internet in general. In particular, he gives a very lucid explanation of the copyright "orphan" issue, of which most readers of the Times are probably unaware. At least 75% of the books in contention in Google's scanning effort are works that have been pretty much left for dead by the publishing industry: works (often out of print) whose copyright status is unclear, and for whom the rights holder is unknown, dead or otherwise prohibitively difficult to contact. Once publishers' and authors' groups sensed there might finally be a way to monetize these works, they mobilized a legal offensive.
Kelly argues convincingly that not only does Google have the right to make a transformative use of these works (scanning them into a searchable database), but that there is a moral imperative to do so, since these works will otherwise be left forever in the shadows. That the Times published such a progressive statement on copyright (and called it a manifesto no less) is to be applauded. That said, there are other things I felt were wanting in the article. First, at no point does Kelly question whether private companies such as Google ought to become the arbiter of all the world's information. He seems pretty satisfied with this projected outcome.
And though the article serves as a great introduction to how search engines will revolutionize books, it doesn't really delve into how books themselves -- their form, their authorship, their content -- might evolve. Interlinked, unbundled, tagged, woven into social networks -- he goes into all that. But Kelly still conceives of something pretty much like a normal book (a linear construction, in relatively fixed form, made of pages) that, like Dylan at Newport in 1965, has gone electric. Our article in Library Journal goes further into the new networked life of books, intimating a profound re-jiggering of the relationship between authors and readers, and pointing to new networked modes of reading and writing in which a book is continually re-worked, re-combined and re-negotiated over time. Admittedly, these ideas have been developed further on if:book since I wrote the article a month and a half ago (when a blogger writes an article for a print magazine, there's bound to be some temporal dissonance). There's still a very active thread on the "defining the networked book" post which opens up many of the big questions, and I think serves well as a pre-published sequel to the LJ interview. We'd love to hear people's thoughts on both the Kelly and the LJ pieces. Seems to make sense to discuss them in the same thread.
bowerbird on May 15, 2006 2:26 PM:
> First, at no point does Kelly question
> whether private companies such as Google
> ought to become the arbiter of all the
> world's information. He seems pretty
> satisfied with this projected outcome.
google seems to be the only entity willing to
pay the money it takes to "become the arbiter".
do you suggest we stand in their way?
spray graffitti into their scanners?
i don't like having the greedsters run things;
they make our society so callous and uncaring.
but are the politicians, especially those
republican ones, really any better? um, no.
they're just the greedsters who couldn't settle
for cash alone, and had to grab some power too.
google does their thing with company money.
your institute lives from foundation money.
i scribble while my girlfriend pays the rent.
seems to me that all of us are freeloaders...
K.G. Schneider on May 15, 2006 4:33 PM:
Nice job! I particularly liked this: "We have five of the world's major research institutions offering up substantial portions of their collections for digitization and thousands of librarians apparently ecstatic at the prospect. And yet few seem to be concerned that Google's search system is nontransparent-that no one but Google knows why search results come up in the order that they do. Frankly, I'm surprised there hasn't been more of an uproar from librarians about this. It seems an affront to their nature as information scientists."
Exactly. Of course we all believe that information wants to be whatever & whatever, but there's a monopolist father-knows-best aspect to this project that is fairly disturbing.
I look forward to seeing Sophie and what it will offer!
dan visel on May 15, 2006 5:22 PM:
There's a quick but decent analysis of what Kelly doesn't take into account here (an economic perspective from Umair Haque) which points out some of the obvious problems of giving Google monopolistic control over information.
This paragraph of Kelly's article is interesting to me:
When books are digitized, reading becomes a community activity. Bookmarks can be shared with fellow readers. Marginalia can be broadcast. Bibliographies swapped. You might get an alert that your friend Carl has annotated a favorite book of yours. A moment later, his links are yours. In a curious way, the universal library becomes one very, very, very large single text: the world's only book.
Kelly leaves the social aspect of books - which I, like Ben, find one of the most interesting aspects of books in the digital era - more or less at that. He seems to assume that the same forces that impel companies to put books online will lead them to imbue them with social functionality. This seems overly hopeful: there's an economic incentive for Google to make texts searchable, but there's not the same incentive for them to make things pleasant to read.
ben vershbow on May 15, 2006 6:04 PM:
"there's an economic incentive for Google to make texts searchable, but there's not the same incentive for them to make things pleasant to read."
That's it exactly. Kelly fixates on one piece of technology, the search engine, and tries to see the whole world through that lens. In this view, books are raw data -- texts to be processed.
But books are more than just texts. A book, in the fullest sense, is a text plus a reading environment. Ever tried to read a book in Google Book Search? It's not fun. Kelly seems more interested in how the machines will be reading.
bowerbird on May 15, 2006 6:18 PM:
> there's an economic incentive for Google
> to make texts searchable, but there's
> not the same incentive for them
> to make things pleasant to read.
except i don't think that's google's job.
i consider that to be _our_ job, _my_ job.
and what i need to have in order to be able to
do that job is unfettered access to the scans.
it would be nice to have unfettered access to
the o.c.r. text that google has to generate too;
but i'm not sure it's reasonable to ask for that,
because that gives them "competitive advantage"
over their rivals, which it seems they "deserve",
by virtue of their picking up the tab initially.
but as to the unfettered access to the _scans_,
i see the _publishers_ getting in the way of that,
not google per se. indeed, google makes it easy
(albeit not painless) to get the scans from them
when it comes to the books in the public-domain.
so here's the question: are we going to let
publishers keep books out of the cyberlibrary?
i agree they should be compensated fairly, but
it's unclear the greedsters know what "fair" is.
sepoy on May 15, 2006 8:14 PM:
>>google seems to be the only entity willing to
pay the money it takes to "become the arbiter".
Google isn't the only game in town, Open Content Alliance: the collaborative efforts of a group of cultural, technology, nonprofit, and governmental organizations from around the world that will help build a permanent archive of multilingual digitized text and multimedia content
bowerbird on May 16, 2006 2:16 AM:
the open content alliance is fantastic,
primarily because of their commitment
to sharing the product of their output,
and i expect to do work on their behalf.
but the biggest amount of money pledged
so far, if i remember, is just $5 million.
and that came from microsoft, who is hardly
a champion of the mentality we'd like to see.
and the o.c.a. seems to have wimped out fully
in the matter of confronting greedy capitalists,
while google seems willing to stride into combat.
so i just don't think there are any easy answers.
and the library of congress, who _should_ be
saying, "we are gonna digitize _everything_,
for the future good of the world as a whole,
and we'll pass the laws we need to go about it",
seems not to have even entered the race yet...
ben vershbow on May 16, 2006 3:40 PM:
That's right. The OCA may be led by archivist-activists like Brewster Kahle and Rick Prelinger, but the board and bankroll are corporate: Microsoft, Yahoo!, Adobe and others. It seems to me that the only thing that could potentially counteract the privatization of public knowledge is a massive open source campaign.
Why couldn't the LOC, universities, and Congress (in conjunction with public interest groups like Public Knowledge, Center for the Public Domain etc.) start a Manhattan Project of open-source knowledge? A huge distributed scanning effort. A not-for-profit, open-source search engine with versions specialized for different scholarly areas. I know this is all painfully idealistic, but isn't that what the Kahles, Prelingers, Wales, and Stallmans (and all of us) should be striving for?
dan visel on May 16, 2006 6:10 PM:
I think ultimately my problem with Kevin Kelly's piece is how he seems to understands the "book" as a thing. The article I would have rather read is almost summed up in a single paragraph, which I stumbled across again last night:
The work is caught up in a process of filiation. Are postulated: a determination of the work by the world (by race, then by History), a consecution of works amongst themselves, and a conformity of the work to the author. The author is reputed the father and the owner of his work: literary science therefore teaches respect for the manuscript and the author's declared intentions, while society asserts the legality of the relation of author to work (the 'droit d'auteur' or 'copyright', in fact of recent date since it was only really legalized at the time of the French Revolution). As for the Text, it reads without the inscription of the Father. Here again, the metaphor of the Text separates from that of the work: the latter refers to the image of an organism which grows by vital expansion, by 'development' (a word which is significantly ambiguous, at once biological and rhetorical); the metaphor of the Text is that of the network--.--.--.
And I'll stop right there, though you can read the rest here. It's from Roland Barthes's "From Work to Text", from 1971: it's thirty-five years old, but somehow it seems much fresher to me than Kelly's smiling trust in the binary stars of technology & the market. Kelly is, alas, a much clearer writer than Barthes, especially Barthes in translation, but it's worth pushing through the brambles here. What Barthes is calling for is a re-imagining of metaphors: for us to conceive of the "book" not as a stack of paper, but as a network of relationships. Barthes's network isn't quite the network we talk about here, but the two could well overlap soon.
Adam on May 16, 2006 6:43 PM:
God, I occupy such a nuanced and tenuous position on this question that I'm afraid it's bound to seem incoherent. See, I'm with Dan...and with you, Ben, in a different way.
On the one hand, I would surely like to see an open-source content-capture effort come into being, in preference to proprietary, walled-garden initiatives like Google Book Search, or to a lesser extent Amazon's "Search Inside This Book" functionality.
On the other hand, it's clear that - as radical, disruptive and threatening as these initiatives surely seem to some, most notably my current publishers - they're predicated on an understanding of the literary work that is clearly obsolescing, if not already past its sell-by date. This is where I stand with Dan: the *object model* in all of these discussions strikes me as being all wrong: appropriate, maybe, to the greater proportion of works that are currently out of copyright, but not necessarily to works being created now and moving forward.
The book is already a networked strategy, in other words, and will only get more so.
On *yet another hand*, though, I wouldn't be so terribly pleased to see the book as (both practical and ineffable) object deprecated, which seems to be both the likely consequence and the not-so-hidden agenda of many of those calling for efforts along these lines.
This is maybe where Dan and I part ways. I was on a panel on digital preservation a few years ago with a well-known techno-triumphalist (initials C*** D*******) who suggested that, once the text itself is digitized at ultra-high resolution, and output on a screen of sufficient luminosity - alongside, perhaps, a high-resolution scan of its original cover - the book-as-object can only be a antiquarian fetish. I think it will surprise no one who knows me that this strikes me as a fatuous, even an offensive position, and one that I could not possibly disagree with more strongly.
So here I am, forced to argue simultaneously that the object model of the book manifest in contemporary digital representation schemas doesn't go nearly far enough in terms of catching its, uh, rhizomatic nature - you will, I trust, forgive the jargon - and that even an object model that did would still fall short of the pleasures afforded by an actual book. Which, if it does precisely nothing to explicitly locate itself in the networks in which it's embedded, I can still take with me to the beach.
Like I say, a difficult position to defend. : . )
bob stein on May 16, 2006 8:44 PM:
the purpose of printed books is to afford conversations across time and space. however, because books are solid objects which maintain their integrity they become invested with "authority." because readers have no efficient way to render their side of the conversation, it tends to appear as "one-way." but when serious discourse takes place over the network . . . which permits readers to enter the conversation at any and every point, the two-way nature of the discourse becomes apparent, forever shifting the relationship of "author" and "reader." kelly is firmly entrenched in the old hierarchies of print and completely misses the much more profound transformation that is taking place.
sol gaitan on May 17, 2006 3:23 PM:
Reading an interview with Olafur Elliason, I couldn't avoid making the connection with our role as "readers" of networked books. He says that he'd like his installations to induce viewers to observe themselves while observing, to regard themselves in the third person. In order to do this, he adds, "it is important to observe the systems or structures we use to observe with, as well. This implies a certain form of order that makes self-reflection possible in the first place."
With digitized books, we seem to concentrate on issues dealing with technology, search engines, or the public or a private nature of the enterprise. We do this because the whole concept is still a novelty. Libraries have been public since the industrial revolution allowed mass production of books. The word "snob," supposedly the abbreviation of the Latin phrase "sine nobilitate" was used to distinguish between those who were students, who had access to books, and those who didn't. The migration of all books, and all knowledge, to a universal database, as Kevin Kelly affirms, will mean that the whole of human history, from books to commercials, will "ride in your purse or wallet," as long as you have access to display technology. Here we have the rise of the snob, the e-snob, all over again.
The revolutionary thing of this new era is the advent of communities of the book. As Kevin Kelly puts it, "In the new world of books, every bit informs another; every page reads all the other pages." But, let's not forget that the human hand is still the weaver of that reading. The book as a world wide web is the product of interaction and collaboration; it is a communal effort. So, the universal library as a book that reads all the other pages seems to be the logical byproduct of annotations, comments and blogs, its ephemeral facilitators. Such subversion of the notion of authorship (which contains Lacan's dyad: the subject of enunciation and the subject of the utterance as manifestation of our divided self,) brings forth the need to regard ourselves in the third person. This in itself marks a new era of writing, Borges' notion of writer as reader.
While the copyright laws continue to serve a business and not an intellectual purpose, the hope of e-books resides not in those millions of scanned texts, but in those written within the "laws of the future." In this seemingly infinite intellectual game, the shift from final product to process shines in all its epistemological beauty.
K.G. Schneider on May 18, 2006 12:13 PM:
"kelly is firmly entrenched in the old hierarchies of print and completely misses the much more profound transformation that is taking place."
Oh oh, time to buy Bob a new keyboard again...
I'm just old-fashioned enough to hope that this is an additive transformation, and that at least for a while, if not much longer, there will be a place for the book-as-authority, where the conversation is book-to-book. The reader-as-authority is a good model, too; but a single narrative voice speaking to us is a very old model (think storytelling around a fire), and one I'm rather fond of. We don't have enough quiet conversations in modern life.
ray on May 19, 2006 11:06 AM:
Yesterday, the Washington Post had an article on Google Book Search, with an interview with Vinton Cerf, Google executive, "internet founding father," and bibliophile. It still fails to question what are the implications of the future library being owned by a for-profit company.