Goes Around, Comes Around

In a wonderful turn of events, we now hear that bookstores in Seattle are doing well again. It turns out, in the shadows of the world’s largest online bookseller, Amazon employees are choosing to browse the shelves at their local bookseller rather than buy online, and buying.

Efficiency is not everything. Shopping can also be an experience.


Textbook 2.0

I’ve written a few times about the future of publishing. Once to highlight concepts by Bonnier, another time to highlight a talk given by Steven Berlin-Johnson. I now work at a publisher, GigaOM produces reporting on the tech industry and GigaOM Pro produces long-form research reports. The long-form research reports are an interesting challenge. Because they are research, they do not lend themselves to all the digital portability that comes with a blog post coming out of a modern CMS. While it’s pretty easy to get a good discussion around a timely blog post, either on the site or across the social web, it’s harder to do so around a longer piece such as a research report.

Which is what makes the video below of a GigaOM reporter Colleen Taylor getting a demo of Inkling’s new 2.0 version of their digital textbook product.

Not only are the interactive features interesting, the social hooks are also impressive. This really is the book re-invented.

More info and links on Colleen’s post, Hands-on with Inkling 2.0, the iPad textbook.

Seth Godin on Changes in Publishing

Seth Godin is a prolific writer and a champion for the book business. That’s why he wants to save it, but not in a format you would recognize. The Domino Project is a joint venture with Amazon to rethink the way books are, “built, sold and spread.” In a piece written earlier this week, Godin proposes an evolution for the library (“no longer a warehouse for dead books.”) and librarian (“producer, concierge, connector, teacher and impresario”). It’s a refreshing vision and “the chance of a lifetime.”

Trinity College Library, Dublin

The next library is a house for the librarian with the guts to invite kids in to teach them how to get better grades while doing less grunt work. And to teach them how to use a soldering iron or take apart something with no user serviceable parts inside. And even to challenge them to teach classes on their passions, merely because it’s fun. This librarian takes responsibility/blame for any kid who manages to graduate from school without being a first-rate data shark.

The next library is filled with so many web terminals there’s always at least one empty. And the people who run this library don’t view the combination of access to data and connections to peers as a sidelight–it’s the entire point.

Wouldn’t you want to live and work and pay taxes in a town that had a library like that? The vibe of the best Brooklyn coffee shop combined with a passionate raconteur of information? There are one thousand things that could be done in a place like this, all built around one mission: take the world of data, combine it with the people in this community and create value.

We need librarians more than we ever did. What we don’t need are mere clerks who guard dead paper. Librarians are too important to be a dwindling voice in our culture. For the right librarian, this is the chance of a lifetime.

– Seth Godin, The Future of the Library

Three Schools of Thought on the Internet

Adam Gopnik has a survey in this week’s New Yorker running down a few of the recent books about the internet and divides them into three schools of thought:

  1. The Never-Betters believe that we’re on the brink of a new utopia, where information will be free and democratic, news will be made from the bottom up, love will reign, and cookies will bake themselves.
  2. The Better-Nevers think that we would have been better off if the whole thing had never happened, that the world that is coming to an end is superior to the one that is taking its place, and that, at a minimum, books and magazines create private space for minds in ways that twenty-second bursts of information don’t.
  3. The Ever-Wasers insist that at any moment in modernity something like this is going on, and that a new way of organizing data and connecting users is always thrilling to some and chilling to others—that something like this is going on is exactly what makes it a modern moment.

Seeing the title of this blog is everwas, I think you know where I come in. The arrival of the internet and hopes and fears that we collectively foist upon this new technology is something we’ve seen before.

Commuters in Tokyo, Absorbed in the Cell Phones

The printing press, the telephone, the radio, the television, the internet, and now the cell phone. Each successive wave of communications technology push and pulls our society to new behaviors. I read somewhere when the telephone was first introduced, no one knew how to start a conversation with the person on the other end of the line. For a few years, “Ahoy!” was the commonly adopted opener, choosing to go with nautical terminology maybe to acknowledge the fact that we were all sailing into new waters together.

Eventually we adopt and assimilate the new technology into our daily life much like the body develops an immunity to a new virus. We grow stronger and learn to control our tools rather than let them control us. What was once shiny and new becomes less so. Gopnik continues to draw the arc of history,

Yet everything that is said about the Internet’s destruction of “interiority” was said for decades about television, and just as loudly. Jerry Mander’s “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television,” in the nineteen-seventies, turned on television’s addictive nature and its destruction of viewers’ inner lives; a little later, George Trow proposed that television produced the absence of context, the disintegration of the frame—the very things, in short, that the Internet is doing now. And Bill McKibben ended his book on television by comparing watching TV to watching ducks on a pond (advantage: ducks), in the same spirit in which Nicholas Carr leaves his computer screen to read “Walden.”

Now television is the harmless little fireplace over in the corner, where the family gathers to watch “Entourage.” TV isn’t just docile; it’s positively benevolent. This makes you think that what made television so evil back when it was evil was not its essence but its omnipresence. Once it is not everything, it can be merely something. The real demon in the machine is the tirelessness of the user. A meatless Monday has advantages over enforced vegetarianism, because it helps release the pressure on the food system without making undue demands on the eaters. In the same way, an unplugged Sunday is a better idea than turning off the Internet completely, since it demonstrates that we can get along just fine without the screens, if only for a day.

Further Reading (I’ve added a few books of my own, feel free to suggest more in the comments):

Adam Gopnik, How the Internet Gets Inside Us, The New Yorker




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Skeuonyms and Collapsitarians

Just finished Kevin Kelly’s latest book, What Technology Wants, and learned two new words/phrases.

Skeuonym – an expression left over from an older technology, no longer used. Examples include, “rewinding the tape,” “dialing the phone, “filming a movie,” or “cranking the engine.”

Anti-civilization Collapsitarian – folks like the Unabomber who view technology with suspicion and fe

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly

The book was thought-provoking and I’m sure I’ll be referring it to again and again. My full review here on Good Reads.

The Next Opportunity in Publishing

Much to the chagrin of my wife, I took over the remote on our internet-enabled TV (old macbook hooked up via HD cable to the back of our flatscreen) to catch highlights from the Web 2 Summit taking place this week in San Francisco.

Steven Berlin-Johnson’s “high order bit” on the early history of book “technology” and lessons it provides for opportunities for e-book publishers today was most compelling. The Kindle represents the most advanced form of electronic packaging of ideas today. Kindle books ship with a full index, mp3 sound files of the book being read, instant download and connections to related data via the web.

What’s missing? Deep links to ideas within the book so that it can be used as a reference. The internet didn’t really  take off until (1) The World Wide Web made it easy to link to other sites and pages and, (2) Google figured out by ranking the number of links to a page and the keywords used, they could calculate PageRank.

I wrote about two concept videos which suggested one possible Future of Print. If someone isn’t working on this now, they should.

Amazon, are you listening?

web20tv on livestream.com. Broadcast Live Free
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Custom Book Jackets Drive Awareness

From the folks that brought you the Day in the Life and America 24/7 photo books, comes their latest project which takes a peek inside homes across America. As they have done in the past, they are offering custom book jackets and they have a cool little app where you can upload a photo and preview it. It’s a great way to customize the gift, like engraving the back of an iPod.

They also let you grab your preview and embed it as I’ve done above. Nice little social media hack that gets the word out.

Spore is doing something similar with it’s Creature Creator as people share their creations with each other. As of today, there are over 5,400 images uploaded to flickr already, only a few days after the release of the program.

David Weinberger on the Miscellaneous

One of the great things about working at Yahoo is that on any given week there’s a brown bag lunch with someone interesting or provocative. Posters around campus promote these bigger draws and I subscribe to an internal mailing list which lets me know of the others. I try and make it to as many of these talks as I can or, if I’m remote, will at least try and tune in via an internal streaming server they have set up.

For David Weinberger’s chat with Bradley Horowitz last week I made a special trip down to Sunnyvale to see him and I’m glad I did – the talk was fantastic.

He’s on a speaking tour for his new book, Everything is Miscellaneous so if you get the opportunity to catch him speak, do try and make it. I’ve read The Cluetrain Manefesto and was deeply influenced by Small Pieces Loosly Joined which I picked up after seeing David speak at an early BloggerCon in Cambridge. I confess that I have not yet picked up a copy of but am looking forward to digging into it soon.

David of course talked about his book, the central argument being that as we move information from a physical world (books on a shelf) to a digital realm (bits striped onto a raid drive) the very nature of how we store information is strained. Dewey’s Decimal system worked fine when there was only one place to put a book but when you need to classify data and could support multiple tags that pointed to the data, traditional hierarchical taxonomies break down. Pointing to shifts such as how people used to organize their CD collection to today when we create playlists of our digitized music on the fly and the recent hand-wringing over the question of Pluto and the qualities that make up a planet are shaking our very core understanding of knowledge.

David gave the example of The Library of Congress, the bastion of this old world order as perfectly tuned for the world of print. 7,000 books arrive each day and are cataloged and assigned their place in the great category tree which is our modern library system. Meetings are held when anomalies occur but are quickly resolved at weekly meetings.

Yet, this method quickly breaks down when we try and apply it to the internet. First there’s just the scale of it all. Over 100,000 blogs are created each day and Technorati’s latest stats show over 15 posts uploaded each second. Not only is it impossible to categorize something that is growing at this rate, it’s also a lost cause to try and filter it for quality. Instead of catching things on the way in as the Library of Congress is doing, in this day of cheap storage and bandwidth, it’s better just to chuck it all into the digital equivalent of a shoebox and let the algorithms sort it out later.

As the grand index of everything we know grows larger, it’s going to be vital that we build better tools around this data to help us find what we need. In the world of photos and music we already know the importance of good metadata. Geo-tagging, date-stamps, EXIM, and BPM data are useful in helping us make sense of what we have. Social interactions with data also add valuable insight. Tagging add a layer of intelligence that a simple algo cannot.

David also believes that your social network will also add an important filter on a generic dataset to help you locate something relevent or interesting. The news this week that Facebook is adding classifieds is important because something for sale by your Facebook friend is an order of magnitude more compelling that a generic Craigslist listing by someone you don’t know.

Our schools are not very well equipped to deal with how we need to work in this new world. Testing in schools is still a, “face forward, solipsitic experience” which doesn’t take into account how we learn things today. A more appropriate test of your child’s understanding of Roman History would be a collaborative project. David suggested that the teacher work with the class on creating a wiki on their topic. The process of hunting, gathering, verifying, and collating information from across the web would prepare them much better than any multiple choice test could today.

What was most interesting in David’s talk was that he also tempered what he said with warnings not to jump too far in one direction. Sometimes, especially in Silicon Valley, we get all wrapped up in the new and shiny and too quickly leave behind the tried and true. There is value in a top down taxonomy on which to hang your folksonomic tags. The examples of Amazon suggesting books on “adoption” for those searching “abortion” and the more recent Google’s autosuggest snafu kicking over “she invented” and suggesting “he invented” as a more appropriate are examples of what happens when you let the ants design the castle. A blended approach is more sensible in the long run.

He also touched on the value of mediated experience. There is a great filtering process that takes place when a book is published. Thoughts are collected, sentences are composed. The investment in putting words to print is an important quality filter. As we move to the digital world where it becomes possible to record every waking moment of your life, it’s important to hang onto that filtering process. Despite it’s banality, Twitter is still compelling because there is ultimately someone at the other end; it is, “mediated by human meaning.” JustinTV, on the other hand is just a pure stream without edits, a capture device at best and one that requires 1:1 time and attention to extract meaning from what is captured.

I obviously need to read his book. After I read Small Pieces, I was sufficiently inspired to quit my job at Dow Jones to join the blogging revolution at Six Apart. Lord knows what will happen after I read Miscellaneous.

Further Reading :

  • Great review by Ethan Zuckerman
  • The entire talk is available on video on the YUI blog (where I snagged the book cover image, thanks Eric!)