We might be called the Institute for the Future of the Book, but we're not big on making bold predictions about where books are headed. This is partly because we prefer William Gibson's assertion that "the future is already here, it's just unevenly distributed", but mostly because we don't think there's much value in contributing to a long list of hilarious pearlers like "guitar bands are on the way out, Mr Epstein". Kevin Kelly has no such qualms and it's probably just as well because this insightful and inspiring post lays out not one, but several visions of the future of books and publishing.
...there is no reason an ebook has to be a tablet. Eventually e-ink paper will be manufactured in inexpensive flexible sheets. A hundred or so sheets can be bound into a sheaf, given a spine and wrapped with two handsome covers. Now the ebook looks very much like a book of old. One can physically turn its pages, navigate the book in 3D, and go back to an earlier place in the book by guessing where the spot was in the stack. To change the book, just tap its spine. Now the same pages show a different tome.
I've often said that we're still in the very early stages of ereading technology and that, consequently, both books and ereaders have advantages over each other, depending what you value more. The logical conclusion is that future texts will bring the best of what books do with the best of what ereaders do into a device that is essentially both and neither. Maybe it will resemble Kevin's description above or maybe it won't, but it will be cool.
At the same time, a screen that we watch can watch us. The tiny eyes built into your tablet, the camera that faces you, can read your face. Prototype face tracking software can already recognize your mood, and whether you are paying attention, and more importantly where on the screen you are paying attention. It can map whether you are confused by a passage, or delighted, or bored. That means that the text could adapt to how it is perceived. Perhaps it expands into more detail, or shrinks during speed reading, or changes vocabulary when you struggle, or reacts in a hundred possible ways. There are numerous experiments playing with adaptive text. One will give you different summaries of characters and plot depending on how far you've read.
I must admit, this was the bit that really got to me. A book that knows when you're getting bored with it is a pretty freaky concept to wrap your head around. It also prompts me to wonder if it will be more difficult to challenge yourself in this kind of environment. I've sweated through tons of books that were very satisfying to finish, but which I would have appeared extremely bored by and even irritated with at the time. Presumably such data on your reading taste would feed back to the Amazon supertastemakercomputer which would then go out of its way to deliver you books you're predisposed to liking. We've already seen the effect of such echo chambers in other media. Sometimes you need to be bored by a text and push through it. The same text might be treacle one day and whitewater the next depending on your mood. There's another side to this too. Can you imagine what authors would make of the stats? Anyone who's ever obsessed over every tiny detail in their analytics will know the inevitable terror induced if we ever get a detailed breakdown of relative interest levels.
Kelly touches on all the major points -- 'ownership' of a text, collaborative authoring, a hierarchy of shared annotations and debates in the marginalia and other the logical outcomes of networked social reading -- but it is the following point that really hits home.
...there is a power in the long form. A self-contained story, unified narrative and closed argument has a strange attraction for us. There is a natural resonance that draws a network around it. We'll debundle books into their constituent bits and pieces and knit those into the web, but the higher level organization of the book will be the focus for attention -- that remaining scarcity in our economy. A book is an attention unit. A fact is interesting, an idea is important, but only a story, a good argument, a well-crafted narrative is amazing, never to be forgotten.
That should be the rallying cry of authors everywhere.
Link: What Books will Become