the future of the app 08.02.2010, 10:37 AM
posted by bob stein
Assuming that whatever replaces the book in the futurist landscape to come will not be called "a book," people often ask me why I named our group The Institute for the Future of the Book. My answer has consistently been a variant of the following: while it's true that whatever replaces the book as a crucial mechanism for moving ideas around time and space is not likely to be called "a book," since we don't have that word yet, "book" works better than "institute for the future of discourse" or "institute for thinking about what comes after the book." I end my answer by suggesting that one day we'll realize that a word describing a new-fangled object, or perhaps a word referring to a range of behaviors has come to signify the dominant media form which has in fact supplanted the book.
I've always assumed that day would be years or even decades off. But recently, while listening to the Flux Quartet play Morton Feldman's First Quartet on a gently swaying barge in the east river, i suddenly recognized our first candidate -- "app." It's not the pretty or expressive word I was hoping for, but it feels right.
The aha moment went like this . . . . while zoning in and out of the Feldman piece I started to think about the iPad that I'd been using for the past six weeks -- not only for most of my reading, but for playing expressive games like my current favorite, SoundDrop, answering email, surfing the web, watching videos, and listening to music. The iPad has become the center of my media universe, much more than my computer, iPod, or iPhone have ever been. My text used to come in an object we called a book; movies came on tapes, laserdisc, and DVDs, music on records and CDs and games on cartridges and CDs. Now they are all appearing as apps of one sort or another on my iPad.
The distinction between media types was a lot more important during the analog era of the mid-twentieth cenury. In 1950 no one would confuse a novel with a movie or a song with a TV show. But today we have e-books with video sequences, and movies published with extensive text-based supplements. Is Lady Gaga a music star or video star?
While I think it will take some time to deeply understand the long-term implications of this flattening of all media types and experiences into varieties of apps, i don't think it's too early to suggest that "app" is on its way to linguistic hegemony.
In the past we had books, movies and songs. now they're all being bundled into one category -- apps -- to be further delineated by a descriptive prefix. It's easy to imagine today that movies will have back stories and fan elaborations available on the web and new fiction forms will explore and make use of a complex almagam of media types. the categories- books, songs, movies- meant something in the past that loses specific meaning in this fluid digital domain where each can incorproate aspects of the other. In its media agnosticism and inclusive fluidity, "app" already describes this landscape.
Consider the word "book." On its own, "book" usually refers to a minimally defined material object, a generic container. It's not until there's a qualifier that we know much about what's inside: fiction or non-fiction book, cookbook, textbook, art book, children's book, how-to book, illustrated book, history book, religious book, and so on.
From this perspective, "app" has already arrived. Book apps, cooking apps, movie apps, game apps, productivity apps, how-to-apps, children's apps, music apps, photography apps etc. are all available. And of course we already have the App Store which is rapidly gaining a place in public parlance.
And yes . . . . I have now gone and registered futureoftheapp.org
Posted by bob stein on August 2, 2010 10:37 AM
The Modesto Kid on August 2, 2010 10:58 AM:
Nice the way this fits in with the "äppärät" in Gary Shteyngart's new book...
Tim of Angle on August 2, 2010 12:59 PM:
No, we will continue to call it a 'book', even when it is all electrons. One look at the historical development of the 'book' suggests that the form is less significant than the concept.
I am more curious as to when we will drop the notion of the 'page', which only intruded itself with the adoption of the codex form back in the second century AD; even now, many people reading a web page do so in the 'print' format, where it's one long scroll of text (or, as a Roman would say, 'volumen').
Maddy on August 2, 2010 1:00 PM:
Interesting idea. I suppose that "book" replaced "scroll" and with it a new style of presentation and reading developed. My only reservation is that "app" sounds like it's only digital. Whereas a book could be digital or non-digital.
Thanks for writing this. I like reading this blog.
All the best
H. Wessells on August 3, 2010 12:53 PM:
While no one routinely binds pages in covers with boards of beech wood today, the books so bound can still be read; I suspect that the term "book", used to describe something that humans read, will also linger yet a while.
Matthew Bernius on August 3, 2010 3:18 PM:
For the better part of 500 years, beyond seeking out content, publishers have primarily worked on optimizing the production of bibles -- making them better, faster, and cheaper. However, thanks to a destabilization of media technology, for the foreseeable future, we are all now in the research and development business. And while we have a general name for the business (publishing), as Bob points out we're lacking a real name for the emerging category of products many of us are developing.
What does a name do? It enables conversation and creation by creating/coming-to-stand-for the concept of a category, allowing the construction of families and hierarchies. It provides us with boundaries about "what is" and "what isn't." It effects what consumers expect to get when they buy an "X." More importantly, it has a profound influence on creators - bounding their notion of what they are setting out to make, and helping decide what tools and techniques they are going to use.
I am coming to the conclusion that "eBook" is a reactionary category, and really can't stand for whats coming. In my mind, by keeping the "book" front and center in the "eBook", denizens that category will, at best, be made up of an unequal partnership between text and other media and interactive electronic elements. And in many cases, it won't be a partnership at all, with the "e" enabled components being supplemental at most to the text. And that text is expected, likewise, to follow certain "bookish" constructions (chucked into chapters, at least for the moment, divided into pages v. scrolling, etc.) -- This is the entire MacLuhan concept of "look[ing] at the present through a rear-view mirror [... and marching] backwards into the future" -- initially bounding the potential of a new category with rules from the existing category).
As for these "new" publications, the things that we knew are here/coming, but we don't have a name for, I think that Bob is right that "app" is going to be a new name for for a while. And I think this is a good thing in many ways, as it opens up an entirely different field of play when it comes to creation. This space appears to be fundamentally more collaborative on the human level (teams of people), the disciplinary level (writers, media makers, programmers, etc.), on the content level (text, media, and software all as interdependent components), and perhaps in terms of production/consumption (representing more of a partnership between writers, publishers, and readers/activators).
A complaint that can be brought against "App" is that it's too "open" of a category to be useful. We can all think about apps that are well outside of the category of publication. As social psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has pointed out, an unbounded experience can be as detrimental to creativity and work as an overly bounded category. That said, I think at this point, while we're in the experimenting stages, we benefit far more from openness than constraint .
Besides, in terms of category nomenclature, I suspect we've been spoiled by "book" in a different way -- in that the stability of it as a category leads us to expect that whatever name replaces it will be equally stable (standing for hundreds of years). Expecting "App" or most names we come up with at this moment to have that durability is asking a lot. Choosing to use "app" doesn't precluding using a better term when it comes along.
 - Like John, I believe that the book, "e" or other, is here to stay. First, its an extremely stable form -- so much so that eBooks are essentially printed books that have been "e'd" up (see above). More importantly, the model of the solitary author who creates via typographic writing and supplements their work with illustrations (or sometimes supplements their illustrations with typographic writing), is still the most accessible form of media creation. Finally, there there is already a huge industrial infrastructure to support books.
 - The other thing that "book", as a category, had going for it, was that prior to (and for quite a while after) Gutenberg, is that it was developed/overseen by a *very* small group of privileged individuals. So by the time they began to become a "mass-market" item, it was a stabilized form. Further, the cost/difficulty of their production also assured they would remain under the control of a relatively small group of individuals. These new applications are being created in a far more democratic and disorganized marketplace.
Gary Frost on August 3, 2010 10:54 PM:
Myself, I would go with future of hand-held reading. Supplanting the book frame is just too antiquarian a position. We should watch the whole diorama from papyrus cartonnage to Kindle 3 and see where the culture transmission is situated. In the magazine genre I would watch Chris Meadows and the reposition of Wired away from the web. In the monographic genre I would persist in watching print as the back story of consumerist ebook fulfillment and ebook retailing. But for the canonic book fans I would focus not on either, but on the interdependence of print and screen delivery. It just fits the moment.
Matt Bernius on August 4, 2010 12:38 PM:
I think you're on to something there. I like the move from noun (book,app) to verb! Though why "Hand held reading"?
While I think the primary artifacts are going to be hand held for a while, that may be a bit too short sighted. Everything points to other mediated forms of reading on the way (& already here).
Also, the other potential downside of the verb approach is that "reading" only covers half the equation (though admittedly the vast majority of the activation of "books").
What it misses is the production side.
So how about "The Institute for the Future of Reading and Writing?" (assuming that design can be thought of as a specialized form of writing...)
Gary Frost on August 5, 2010 8:43 PM:
I will stick with hand-held for a few reasons. One is the lonely single reader who is the insoluble end user. Another is the needed mobilization of the individual body and manipulative hands as an agency of comprehension. Another is the trend from main frames to a fundamental device scale similar to the print book.
Yes, reading books is a very small sector of reading, but as I saw in American Libraries today, traditional book reading is an excellent tutorial for more dynamic reading and certainly a skill useful in parsing the wild web.
On the dark side Kindle and nook remain fulfillment devices; the retailers don’t care if you read books as long as you buy them. There may even be a clever reverse relation as retailers induce more alluring single click book purchase habits that are fully decoupled from any book reading
bowerbird on August 11, 2010 3:09 PM:
well, once we perfect the telepathy,
it won't matter what the word was...
Michael on August 21, 2010 12:12 PM:
Bob Stein is correct, a new word is necessary to adequately represent the creation of what is insufficiently described as an"eBook".
My nomination is cyberg, a new word having as its origin the adjective cyber ("relating to, or characteristic of the culture of computers, information technology, and virtual reality").
Writings of all kinds can and will be published as books and as cybergs, with the difference in format clearly differentiated.
Just a suggestion.
Gary Frost on August 26, 2010 8:54 PM:
The term e-book is obsolete as you mention. All books are products of digital technologies. A more useful, air-tight distinction is between paper books and screen books.
gary Frost on August 30, 2010 6:00 AM:
Study of the future is just an engaging way of doing history. The future of the book, for example, is really media history of the 21st century. The fun aspect is that while methods of history study apply, the specialist also gets to live through the era. This double dynamic is something exclusive to futurist investigation.
So futurist study entails an oddness in routine historical methods such as archeology, documentary research, oral testimony, and impartial interpretation. While students of the 18th century or 19th can assemble evidences and interpretations without any need to live in the era, the futurist must work in the midst of history.
Muso on September 3, 2010 11:40 PM:
Gaining information and using it to travel, play and work are the main aims of people buying books and audios. The technology will dictate the process. People will want it faster and easier as I found out at the New York Book Fair recently - see for example - http://myamazingpeople.com/en/1286/click-listen-and-play-what-next/
Bob Kasher on October 15, 2010 8:11 AM:
I must say I don't like the term App per se simply because an App applies to so many non-informational things such as Flashlights, GPM devices etc. However I think it may be useful to incorporate the App concept into a final name. What I thought of was the Bapp. The reason for this isn't just adding the B of Book to the app of App but for what it alludes to as well. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Scottish cuisine, a Bapp is a soft chewy dinner roll that can be used to make a sandwich, be a stand alone accompaniment to a meal or be incorporated into some other food as a starchy thickener. As such the aspects of being able to reference both a malleable and a stand alone product that could be 'food' for thought appeals to my sense of humour. As such a Bapp could be any number of informational products that could in turn combine and recombine with other Apps or Media to produce a truly fulfilling meal of knowledge :).
bob stepno on October 28, 2010 7:47 PM:
Bob, you used the phrase "whatever replaces the book as a crucial mechanism for moving ideas around time and space..."
"Moving ideas around time" reminds me of the wonderful Voyager Expanded Books I bought and can't read on my current hardware... unlike ASCII text, HTML, or scanned image files of 19th century book and magazine pages(as well as their paper versions).
Are developers and publishers of future digital books and magazines considering what their platform-dependence means over time? What will be the future equivalent of archives and research?
Khoi Vinh is managing an impressive discussion of related design-and-usability issues in magazine publishers' first generation iPad apps, here:
New media always seem to be in constant "beta," but I worry that we could lose a lot of creativity to "constant betamax."