Wednesday, May 24, 2006

What's new under the sun?

The May 14 “manifesto” by Kevin Kelly, “What Will Happen to the Books?” is very interesting. (I am a little behind in my reading of the New York Times Magazine, so this link will get you to the archives and not to the full text.) Kelly gives us a portrait of the future in which nearly every book has been digitized and in which information is seamlessly linked together.

Hmm... when is this all going to happen? At certain points, Kelly suggests that we are on the verge of this new environment and at other points, reality intrudes: lawsuits over copyright won’t be resolved quickly and the pace of scanning is unclear. And let’s remember that all that hyperlinking has to be done by humans (for now) for it to make any sense. And that takes time. So the “universal library” might be scanned in relatively short order, but the cataloging is going to be a long-term project. As in today’s world, libraries acquire books much faster than they can sort them into order.

He’s probably right that at some point a “book outside the universal library will be like a Web page outside the Web, gasping for air.” But that’s already the case for millions of volumes that sit unread in libraries and millions of documents that sit unread in archives. If we want to anthropomorphize, we can say that these books and documents patiently wait for their rescuers, historians and scholars of the present and future who will unearth them in the course of their research. Books can survive a long time without air actually.

Indeed, the biggest flaw in Kelly’s analysis is any sense of historical perspective.

Consider his breathless excitement over the activity of the readers in this universal library:

“Turning inked letters into electronic dots that can be read on a screen is simply the first essential step in creating this new library. The real magic will come in the second act, as each word in each book is cross-linked, clustered, cited, extracted, indexed, analyzed, annotated, remixed, reassembled and woven deeper into the culture than ever before....
“In recent years, hundred of thousands of enthusiastic amateurs have written and cross-referenced an entire online encyclopedia called Wikipedia. Buoyed by this success, many nerds believe that a billion readers can reliably weave together the pages of old books, one hyperlink at a time. Those with a passion for a special subject, obscure author or favorite book will, over time, link up its important parts. Multiply that simple generous act by millions of readers, and the universal library can be integrated in full, by fans for fans.” (NYT Magazine, May 14, 2006, p.45).

Wow! So prior to the Internet nobody ever read books, took notes, prepared indices, annotated editions, wrote commentaries, digested books for others, quoted passages in new writings, or cited the old texts in the new texts? The hyperlink concept was actually invented hundred of years ago--it was just called a footnote. The index, the abstract, the commentary all have long histories.

And a standard way of note-taking among Western scholars, for hundreds of years, was the commonplace book in which the reader arranged topical headings in a notebook and then copied passages from what he read under the various headings.

These days, the headings might be called “tags” which Kelly notes is a “recent innovation on the Web”:

“A tag is a public annotation, like a keyword or category name, that is hung on a file, page, picture or song, enabling anyone to search for that file.... Because tags are user-generated, when they move to the realm of books, they will be assigned faster, range wider, and serve better than out-of-date schemes like the Dewey Decimal System [Ouch!], particularly in frontier or fringe areas like nanotechnology or body modification.” (Ibid.)
[Not sure I want to know what “body modification” is.]

Now I’m not suggesting that the scale of the Internet or the machine-assisted nature of the searching won’t change the nature of all this activity. But it’s not as if, prior to the Internet, people have been slowly taking one book off the shelf, reading it, and putting it back and then moving on to the next book, all the while not communicating with each other.

As with many new technologies, the first thing people have done with the Internet is figure out how to do the same things they’ve already been doing better, faster, more efficiently. Then they will start figuring out to do new things with the technology and society really changes. Kelly’s analysis of how things will (could) change would be improved if he paid attention to what is truly new and what is a new way of doing the old.

For example, Kelly is really excited that “the universal library will encourage the creation of virtual ‘bookshelves’--a collection of texts, some as short as a paragraph, others a long as whole books, that form a library shelf’s worth of specialized information.” (Ibid.)

This isn’t new--you’ve got such things, I’ve got such things, Kelly’s got such things. For example, I’ve got a lot of really specialized information about the reception of a medieval book called the Kuzari. Some of it’s virtual--in my computer files--and some of it is ‘real’--on my bookshelves and in my file cabinets and scattered on the floor of my study, sometimes. And some of the connections are in my brain and some are in writing.

Next sentence: “And as with music playlists, once created, these ‘bookshelves’ will be published and swapped in the public commons.” (Ibid.)

I'm not sure what's new here. Don't we publish our specialized collections of knowledge nowadays?

Next sentence: “Indeed, some authors will begin to write books to be read as snippets or remixed as pages.” (Ibid.,)

Actually, learned authors writing during the Renaissance period had some notion this was going to happen when their readers got hold of their books. But regardless of authorial intention, we the readers have been doing this to texts for a long time.

Next sentence: “The ability to purchase, read, and manipulate individual pages or sections is surely what will drive reference books (cookbooks, how-to manuals, travel guides) in the future. You might concoct your own ‘cookbook shelf’ of Cajun recipes compiled from many different sources....” (Ibid., pp.45-46.)

Again, this sounds a lot like a commonplace book. And Kelly might want to read Malachi Beit-Arie’s discussion of medieval Jewish manuscript culture in which scholar-scribes often felt free to rewrite texts as they saw fit.

Skipping a bit: “Once snippets, articles, and pages of books become ubiquitous, shuffle-able and transferable, users will earn prestige and perhaps income for curating an excellent collection.” (Ibid., p.46)

Indeed, authors in the medieval and early modern periods often looked for patronage by claiming to have put together a useful compendium of information on a topic.

Ok, I think I’ve made my point.

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