Last week I participated in a sLab Exploration session identified as ‘The Smartbook Project: Rethinking the Book’ at the Ontario College of Art and Design. In attendance were a diverse crowd of people, from students, librarians (information sciences) and user interface specialists to a physics professor from the University of Toronto. And within the hours that followed, this group partook in an intriguing exploration into what might end up being the future of the book.
I open with this first paragraph not because I want to detail that session but because the traditional book and readability have always been intriguing to me. As some of you may know, I am a proponent of freedom of information, open source technologies and knowledge management and oddly enough the traditional book seems to encompass all those attributes with the exception of language that may make a book proprietary to the users of a particular ethnic group.
There is a reason the book is such a universal human concept – it has evolved for thousands of years in most corners of society. While books certainly started out somewhat elitist due to the cost of reproduction and some books today, for example educational periodicals and medical or science journals continue this tradition; in general the printed word is fairly inexpensive to reproduce. But now after thousands of years of evolution, the book it is slowly entering uncharted territory. The digital age is well upon us and the future of the book may be taking a very large step forward.
How is the printed word going to transition into the electronic word? That is what many smart people around the world are trying to figure out. There are legal and economic questions abound. Companies like Amazon are trying their best to capitalize on the market but with their present proprietary approach, they will be the only winners. If any singular company’s approach marginalizes the very essence of the ubiquity of the printed word people will lose. There are also attempts to start scanning whole books by Google but this effort also hurts the reader by placing the books into a proprietary format. How will society avoid the pitfalls of a Google or Amazon monopoly and the problems associated with proprietary information and/or its dissemination?
In addition to various companies trying to control the medium, there are the publishers who must protect their intellectual capital including their writers, who will certainly have a say in how electronic editions will be handled. But I wonder how groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) that are doing their best to ‘defend our rights in the digital world’, are going to handle the onslaught of digital publications. For example, can a purchaser of a digital book in a home have only one device being read at a time or can a family of four all with different reading speeds be on a different page simultaneously? This is obviously a licensing issue but the question has yet to be raised.
Fortunately for society, the ethical questions will hopefully be figured out while we slowly begin to understand what the physical and interactive future of the electronic version of the book is going to be. Some important issues haven’t yet been determined. Here are a few:
- the format of the file (hint: let’s make sure it is an open standard)
- the actual physical medium (remember switching formats i.e. VHS to DVD’s to Blu-ray is not efficient, a book from the 1800’s still works)
- power supply (the traditional book doesn’t need batteries)
- preservation of the electronic version (how do we keep it safe and secure)
But there are some great advantages for the future of the book being electronic:
- the reader could independently change the type size (as one gets older, larger print is easier to reader)
- one could have several books in one (only limited by the memory of the physical device)
- buying could be a very quick and efficient one-step process (based over the internet)
- the ability to search (a search within a single or multiple electronic reference)
- less expensive to peruse a section of a book (licensing issue – pay per page/chapter)
- enhanced research capability (reader pays for an unlimited amount of reference material per month)
- local and distant libraries would be within reach (internet based services)
And there is one last important point to remember. The author of the future or what it means to be an author also might change. Authorship may become more of a community process and less of a singular effort. I will not expand on this because a similar debate is already going on between Wikipedia and The Encyclopedia Britanica. But this is definitely a future possibility.
It is a critical time for the future of the book, especially in the next decade but only if I had a crystal ball would I care to prophetize. I think that between the number of brilliant minds, the large conglomerates, the authors, the publishers, the technologists and the user interface specialists no one person or group can fully determine the electronic books destiny. But I can say that it will be a formidable challenge to unseat the reigning champ.