When people ask me to speak or write about the future of books, invariably what they want to know about are things like ebooks, digital publishing, book apps, transmedia. These are not the future of books. They are the present of books.
To consider the future of books, we must imagine the future of media. We must imagine the future of the web. And for that we must lift the veil and step into the post-digital.
In Greg Bear’s seminal science fiction story Blood Music, biotechnologist Virgil has developed ‘noocytes’, simple biological computers based on his lymphocytes. His employer is nervous about the dangers of his research and so orders Virgil to destroy his work. Virgil injects himself with the noocytes in order to smuggle them out of the laboratory and continue his work elsewhere. But inside Virgil, these biological machines quickly multiply and evolve. They form a self-aware network, a nanoscale civilization that transforms Virgil and others as well. The noocytes are useful. They can fix myopia and high blood pressure. They can create useful mutations that enhance human abilities. But they are also utterly uncaring of the sovereignty of each human being they have colonized, and end up assimiliating the entire biosphere of North America into a single networked organism 7000km wide.
Unlike the noocytes, the internet hasn’t yet managed to fix my short-sightedness. But it can be thought of as a kind of single networked entity, and one that is quickly colonizing our physical lives.
Last year, Guardian reporter Oliver Burkeman observed this at SXSWi 2011 and said ‘the internet is over’. I prefer the term post-digital, an existence in which the boundary between our physical lives and our digital lives is becoming transparent and permeable and will, quite soon, I think disappear altogether. In a post-digital world we will experience ubiquitous computing and hyper-connectedness. [Link: http://bit.ly/HBwafA]
We can already see this emerging around us as the internet moves to mobile devices, tablets and smartphones that we carry around in our pockets. But even in a society with a high penetration of smartphones, as Australia is, the internet is still inside the device. It’s separated from our physical existence. We think of “going online” and “using the internet” as almost like another country that we visit. But in another decade or two, this may look more like wearable technology and bio-implants, where the internet is more of us.
A post-digital world has no edges
Our concept of books and book retail is defined by its boundaries. A book is a bounded thing, whether as a print artefact, an app or an electronic file. It is discrete, transferrable, finite.
However, just like the colonization of Virgil by the noocytes, when the web is the world there are no edges. Anything can be a node on the network: a human, an advertising billboard, a train, a tree. When the web is the world, a link between any two nodes on the network can be some type of transaction: a commercial sale, a social exchange, a transfer of knowledge. When the web is the world, there are no edges placing boundaries around time, physical space or memory.
Within this context, a bookstore can be a physical bricks-and-mortar location on a busy high street that has existed for fifty years, but a bookstore can also be a dinner party, or a conversation between two co-workers or an aeroplane mid-flight. Physical location places no limitation at all on our ability to find, access, pay for, talk about, share content. This confounds not just booksellers, but also publishers who have built their business models on trading publishing rights for various geographic regions and formats.
In the post-digital world, even the individual book’s boundedness blurs and dissipates at the edges. When books and reading are networked, then words can connect with each other. In his keynote address at O’Reilly Tools of Change in 2009, Peter Brantley of the Internet Archive said:
…an environment of participatory engagement is emerging across books. Digital words can be described by other words, joined across books, linked with data.
Publishing as a service
If the idea of ‘boundedness’ loses relevance, what happens to the traditional structures that hold up publishing?
For one thing, we may discover that opening our books to the network creates infinitely more possibilities for the discovery, sale and sharing of them. Just as the noocytes set about improving, scaffolding, linking and strengthening cells inside Virgil, readers and fans are capable of doing the same for our networked literature.
Canadian author William Gibson saw this in action when he published his novel Spook Country:
…every text today has a kind of spectral quasi-hypertext surrounding it. …When I published Pattern Recognition within a few months there was someone who started a Web site. People were compiling Googled references to every term and every place in the book. It has photographs of just about every locale in the book — a massive site that was compiled by volunteer effort. But it took a couple of years to come together. With Spook Country the same thing was up on the Web before the book was published.” [link: http://wapo.st/HsWcg7]
New startups like Small Demons seek ways to commercialise this kind of service.
In the unbounded networked reality of books, the most valuable service a publisher can provide is not to make whole books available to the world, but to create new and interesting relationships between things on the network: between words and other words, between books and other books, and between readers.
But none of this has to happen exclusively in the strange foreign country of the internet, an other-place where we “go online”. When the web is the world, these relationships exist seamlessly and indistinguishably between digital and physical things too. A non-fiction text that is discussed by a class of secondary school students in a shared physical space (the classroom) and shared time (third period – Modern History) may be annotated by other readers, now and in the future, here and elsewhere, who contribute to the very same discussion. In such an environment, the value from the publisher is not in providing the original text, but in creating services, tools and platforms that make it easier for this distributed, networked, asynchronous conversation to flow.
Other structures of traditional publishing also melt and shift in a networked world. If books are not containered ‘things’ – be they physical or digital – our existing understanding of concepts like stock, retail, returns, distribution, rights, licences and even authorship are all challenged.
The smart publishers today talk about the format-neutral workflow. They have realized that creating a thing, to be converted into another thing, is an inefficient way to serve up content to a very large number of people who wish to exercise their personal choice over how, when and in what format they experience books.
But as the web becomes the world, the publishing of the future needs not only to be container-neutral, but containerless. Not a manufacturer of the telephone or even the wireless signal, but the 1930s radio operator constantly plugging and replugging wires to put people in contact with one another. The post-digital concierge who creates meaningful experiences by connecting us with ourselves.