Setting the Tone

Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.

- Theodore Roosevelt

Friday, November 30, 2012

Books Become Social: An Idea For the Future

I am already a fan of Open Utopia, an experiment in social reading. I met this with a pure deja vu feeling: First, an article by Jennifer Howard on the project, and then, coincidentally, an email from a Linkedin contact complaining about how rough Amazon and the various self-publishing organisations treat the authors, set me up for this. If I was feeling despondent about books and more so, about creativity, here is the answer.

Indeed, I am talking about the idea rather than the specific project. Open Utopia is an experiment, carefully crafted, though I think Utopia is rather an unfortunate choice. This experiment could have been easily crafted on some other book, one, I may hope, that had a world-changing impact, and by implication, showed a deeper confidence in the way the future will indeed play out. Open Utopia, I would like to believe, is not an utopia, but more a precursor of an excitingly creative future.

Printed books have to change. Those of us in love with paper, with that intimate warmth and musty smell that put us to sleep every night, know that there is something wrong with it. As we enter the realm of a different generation, those who, almost universally, saw computers at school, say, books may seem old-fashioned. But more than that, printed word may appear increasingly stale, particularly in comparison with the openness and creativity on the web.

The travails of my writer correspondent in the hands of Amazon is somewhat relevant here. His narrative suggests that the big beast, he called them the proverbial elephant in the china shop, do not care any longer about the writers. They know they can roll them over. It was fascinating in a way because I am a fan of Amazon: I find their customer service amazing, their strategies so smart. But the story suggests a shift which I have seen elsewhere: A power shift from producers, in this case authors, to consumers, which is the essence of the markets and, by extension, seen as a good thing. However, I have noted this shift elsewhere too - in Higher Education - where in the name of student choice, the power and the prerogative were passed on from the producers, in this case the faculty, to the self-appointed gate-keepers of choice, managers of various creed at the colleges, and finally to big businesses which embody the management ethos.

So, my thesis is that information industries go through extraordinary phases of creativity when a new medium empower the producers to create unhindered, but, in a phase like this, the power of choice gets passed on from producers to consumers, and invariably to the self-appointed purveyors of consumer choice, the big businesses. Tim Wu makes a similar point in his The Master Switch, though he looks at telecommunications and Internet, rather than publishing and education. However, the patterns are quite similar: Creativity usually prospers in safe environments, where the creators have the choice, rather than in those where they are subject to the vagaries of consumer choice; and invariably, the consumer choice comes about as a potent force only through proxies, the big businesses which act as the gatekeepers of that choice. This eventually stalls creativity, and finally, again a breakthrough technology or organisational form come about, reorganise the producers and creative actors, and a new cycle of creativity starts all over again.

I notice in books a similar degeneration, and was quite worried that the new technology, the Internet, was being employed, at least thus far, to create forms which extend the lock-down version of Amazon monopoly. I refused to buy a Kindle, as I did not want to hand over my freedom to read to one platform and one company. But the appeal of this platform seemed unstoppable, particularly for a generation which has loved to hate books as a representation of the old, top-down, 'dad's universe'. The cool electronic Kindle and its cousins represented no freedom, only a more controlled experience, but the novelty of the medium, embedded in the buzz of creativity around the web in general, seemed to have obscured the fact altogether.

The social book, which uses the new medium for what it is, opens up a new possibility. Indeed, it is possible to see Internet as one giant book - remember Tim Barnes Lee's early inspiration came from the idea of Commonplace Book, the genteel habit of fact collection in one massive compendium - and it evolved quickly into a place to meet. One could be fooled by the apparent solitude of the act of reading, but the book-readers know that it is actually a conversation, both with the author and its characters, and the expression 'on the same page' is there for a reason. The social book, a book as a place to meet, is an indicator of the future of the book more than its Kindle avatar.

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